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 FOURTEEN


"Shut the door, Sah'raada," Joel said quietly, over his shoulder. "Lock it, if you can."

The young man obeyed, even to the point of jamming a chair under the latch, then retreated into the far corner, where he could simultaneously watch the door and Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana. His sister (yes, Ehm'teel, whom I'd feared dead these last three weeks) remained just behind Joel, her eyes darting nervously and her thumb hovering above the trigger of her stinger.

At that point I could stand it no longer. Pulling free from my kits' grasp, I dashed across the room--and I don't believe my feet were touching the floor. Joel met me halfway, his arms closing around me. For long seconds we gazed into each other's eyes--and then he kissed me. In the more than thirty years I'd known him, he'd brought forth in me a wide range of emotions: friendship, gratitude, exasperation, disappointment, anger…even, very briefly, hatred. But never, I think, had I admired him more. "Joel," I whispered brokenly. "I thought I'd never see you again…"

"Ehm'ayla, my darling," he replied softly, stroking my shortened mane. "I was afraid I'd lost you."

He wore a close-fitting black jumpsuit--like something out of a 20th-Century Terran Ninja movie--and thick black boots. A CF-issue commpak was clipped to his right ear, and the readout screen of a scanpak covered his left eye, the gauntlet pulled over the slim elastic brace that supported his half-healed wrist. Sah'raada and Ehm'teel were similarly equipped--except for the boots, of course--and all three of them were dirty, disheveled, and obviously exhausted. Joel in particular seemed to have lost weight, and the dark circles under his eyes told me he had not slept well for quite some time. "They told us you'd left the planet," I said, with an accusing glance at our captors. Rae was right, I thought. Ehm'maana is a lying sack of…

But his next words proved me wrong. "That was deliberate," he said. "I know how much it must have upset you, darling, but that couldn't be helped." He jerked a thumb over his shoulder. "They have an informant in the District Police; if Ehm'luruus knew what we were up to, they would too. Your father worked it out beautifully: a little more a than a week ago the Matriarch departed with a stateroom booked in my name, and a human answering my description was seen boarding. Oh--before I forget." He unclipped a small silver object from his belt and handed it to me. "Yours, I believe."

It was my own mini-stinger--and as I accepted it, a vast, almost frightening, feeling of power surged through me. We were still a long way from the surface--but whatever happened, I need no longer face it as a helpless victim.

Someone tugged at my arm then, and I stepped quickly aside as the twins clustered eagerly around their father.

Joel embraced Ehm'rael first, pressing her tight to his chest for long minutes. He kissed her firmly on the cheek then, and I was not surprised to see his eyes--and hers--bright with tears. According to Tom, Joel had never believed that she had died in the cave-in--but until now, he could not have known for certain. Smiling, he patted her bare back--and his eyes widened in alarm as his fingers encountered her protruding vertebrae. "I should have brought you a T-shirt, sweetie," he said.

She nuzzled his cheek, her answering smile a little watery. "That's all right, Daddy," she said. "I've pretty well gotten used to it."

He kissed her again. "Just a little longer." He turned. For a few seconds he stared aghast at Tom, then reached up to rub his son's bristly head. "I thought I was the only bald one in this family."

Slowly Tom matched his grin--and I sighed and shook my head. Goddess, where was he a week ago? If only Tom had been able to laugh about it then… "Like you always say, Dad," he said. "'Like father, like son.'"

"At least yours will grow back." Catching sight of Tom's hands, he frowned. "What's this?" he asked, fingering the handcuffs.

Tom shrugged. "Crime and punishment."

"I don't know what the crime was," Joel said, "but the punishment is canceled as of now." He turned to Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana. "We'll have these off, please," he told them.

They remained silent, their jaws tight and their whiskers bristling obstinately. Joel shrugged. "Have it your way," he said, and drew his stinger. "Hold your hands up, son," he went on. Tom did--and Joel fired a full-power discharge into the middle of the strap that connected the cuffs. With a loud snap and a shower of sparks, it parted, and Tom's hands flew apart. Ten-centimeter polymer tails still dangled from his wrists--but for the first time in more than a week he was free. And--judging from his expression--determined to stay that way.

"Thanks, Dad," he said. "Very much."

"My pleasure," Joel said. He patted Tom's shoulder. "We'll deal with the charm-bracelets later." He rounded again on Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana. "Tell me," he went on briskly, "what made you think you could kidnap my wife and children and get away with it?"

Sah'rajj drew himself to his full height, his chin lifting proudly. "What is the meaning of this intrusion?"

"That should be fairly obvious, even to you," Joel replied. He studied our hosts, his eyes narrowing.. "I've heard a great deal about you," he went on. "A great deal indeed." That was my mate: always playing to the crowd. He was enjoying this, I knew: throwing a monkey-wrench into their carefully-laid plans. And his attitude told me something else as well: he had a cunning plan. For the first time in many days, I felt myself begin to relax.

"How did you get in here?" Ehm'maana demanded. "And who--?" She glanced at Joel's companions, and her eyes suddenly widened. "You!" she gasped.

"I see you recognize my friend Sah'raada," Joel said. "This is his sister, Ehm'teel. They both have things to discuss with you--but that can wait. They guided me--and Sah'raada has told me a great deal about you and your Undercity."

"That cannot be," Ehm'maana said in horror. "Unless--"

Sah'raada grinned maliciously. He looked much better than the last time I'd seen him--but considering how close to he'd come to feeling the Goddess' hand, anything would be an improvement. He'd put back most of his missing weight, and obviously regained his strength. He'd even had his broken teeth mended. "Dr. Sah'jinn did not follow your orders to the letter," he said. "He did not erase my memories--merely blocked them temporarily. By the time my sister emerged from the tunnels, they had all but returned."

I glanced at Ehm'teel. She looked tired, and was covered heard to toe with dirt; but she stood steady and determined, her eyes glinting. She should not have been there at all: her pregnancy, now almost three months advanced, had begun to show, a definite bump in the midsection of her tight-fitting jumpsuit. "Then it was you we chased into the tunnels?" I asked.

She nodded. "Yes, though I did not know it at the time. I was not injured by the cave-in, but I was trapped, and then the flooding caused by the Interval forced me to seek shelter in the habitat section. It was several days before I found my way out.

"During my wanderings I saw a number of strangely-dressed people," she went on. "They were neither District Police nor Combined Forces--and obviously, they were searching for something. I do not know why I avoided them…but I am glad now that I did."

"They had been sent to search for you," I confessed. "I feared you were lost, or dead."

"Interesting," she said. "I did not know who they were--but their appearance aroused my suspicions. When I finally emerged, I learned of your disappearance; and that too made me wonder. In secret, late at night, I made my way to Sah'salaan General to see my brother. Together we decided to seek help. Mr. Abrams was in jail, and of course I could not ask Ehm'luruus; I would sooner deal with the Dark Ones. We consulted your father--and he put us in contact with Admiral Ehm'rael."

I nodded. It all made sense now--and the admiral, of course, would have helped them without question. "That still doesn't explain…" I began, but Joel interrupted, a sheepish grin on his face.

"Actually," he said, "technically…it was Tom who led us here."

Tom jumped, gaping in astonishment. "Me?" he said. "How?"

Ehm'teel turned to me. "I must beg your forgiveness," she said. "Sah'raada and I--with the assistance of Sah'sell and Sah'majha--have used your son, without his knowledge."

"How so?"

"Nanotech," Joel said. "A variation on an old Chrysaoan trick, apparently."

"Before Tom entered the Undercity," Ehm'teel explained, "his body was seeded with a tiny quantity of nanobots. Quite undetectable, at first--but over the next week they grew, overlaying his entire skeletal system with a crystalline metallic lattice. To the Combined Forces deep-penetrating radar satellites, he is quite detectable indeed."

I nodded. Leave it to Sah'majha: if nothing else, ten years as a slave to the Jellies taught him how to be devious. Is this what Tom meant, I wondered, when he said the Goddess intended him to find us? No way to know--but a comforting thought nonetheless.

Tom frowned and shook his head. "I don't remember being seeded with nanobots…"

Ehm'teel smiled tenderly. "No," she said. "You would not. That was your uncle's doing: he saw to it that a tranquilizer was slipped into your food. After you were asleep, he and Sah'majha arranged the injection."

"I wondered why I had a sore spot on my arm," Tom said. "But other than that--I didn't feel a thing." He shifted uncomfortably. "I still don't."

"As intended," Ehm'teel said. "We believed Tom would attempt to enter the Undercity," she told me. "For that especially, I beg your forgiveness: we made use of the possibility, rather than seeking to prevent it."

"And then we'd still be down here, and you wouldn't have a clue where to search," I pointed out. I glanced at Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana. "I once said the ends never justify the means--but once in a while, maybe they do."

Ehm'teel smiled gratefully. "And of course," she concluded, "what he did not know, he could not reveal, even by accident."

"After I was released from jail, Admiral Ehm'rael called me to her home," Joel said. "Sah'raada and Ehm'teel were staying with she and Sah'majha--hiding out, actually. Ehm'rael had arranged for several CF radar satellites to monitor the area, and from their data, we were able to calculate Tom's position within the Undercity. And that, along with Sah'raada's recovered memories, was all I needed. We put together our equipment--and the rest is history."

I shook my head in amazement. I ought to have known--and I should never have believed, even for an instant, that he really had left the planet. I understood now what Sah'jinn had meant by his whispered instruction to "wait"--and why Sah'raada's disappearance from the hospital had so interested him. He'd known all along that Sah'raada would eventually recover his memory--and having done so, would realize what had happened to my daughter and me.

Joel smiled, one arm still wrapped around my waist, the other spread wide to encircle our kits. "Now that we're all on the same page," he said with a grin, "we can conclude our business." He cocked an eye at our hosts. "Before we do, if you two by chance have any weapons on you, I'll thank you to hand them over--nice and slow."

With expressions that could have blistered paint, they reached into their flowing sleeves. Ehm'teel and Sah'raada's thumbs tightened on the triggers of their stingers, and so did mine, as Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana drew forth a pair of small police-issue stingers and passed them to Joel. He fiddled with the controls, locking both weapons on a half-charge setting--and then handed them to the twins. "I'll trust you not to use them unless it's absolutely necessary," he said quietly.

They exchanged a wide-eyed glance. "You got it, Dad," Tom said solemnly.

"Now," Joel said, turning again to his prisoners. "This is the situation, as I see it. After hearing what Sah'raada had to say, I've decided I don't give a rat's ass about Appropriate Technology, or whatever the hell it is you're trying to prove. As far as I'm concerned, you can stay down here and rot. But I am taking my wife and children, and we're leaving now. What you do after we're gone--so long as it doesn't hamper us--I do not care."

Over the last twenty years, I'd grown used to my mate's easygoing, joking, borderline-irresponsible persona, and had almost forgotten that he too had once been a command-level CF officer. The twins gazed at him in alarm, astounded by the sudden metamorphosis. Sah'rajj stood his ground, his eyes narrowing; but Ehm'maana drew back, a flicker of uncertainty once again crossing her face.

"You may find that difficult, Mr. Abrams," Sah'rajj sneered. "Or do you intend to shoot your way out?"

Joel grinned. "From what I hear," he said, "I'd be willing to bet most of your populace would be on our side. But it shouldn't be necessary to put that to the test." From his belt he pulled a small black box, its face covered with buttons, dials, and a series of flashing red lights. It had a handmade look, as if it had been cobbled together in a hurry--but what it was, I had no idea. "Say hello to our passport," he said.

"I do not understand," Ehm'maana replied coldly.

Joel waved his hand. "Did you think this power failure was just a coincidence? Far from it. You see, on our way here, my friends and I paid a quick visit to your thermocouples."

With a snarl, Sah'rajj stepped forward, to be checked by a row of stingers. "What have you done?" he demanded.

Joel shook his head sadly. "They really are in deplorable condition," he said. "You shouldn't rely on technology that decrepit--especially when so many lives are at stake. What did I do? Not much. I just wired a remote control into the voltage regulators. I can turn the power up…" he touched a button, and the lights suddenly brightened. "Or down." Another tap, and we were once again plunged into near-darkness. "It's a tight-beam encrypted transmission on multiple, constantly-shifting CF frequencies, which I doubt very much you could interrupt. It's also keyed to my heartbeat. If that stops, or if I get nervous and push this big red button, every one of your thermocouples goes bang."

They stared at him aghast, and Ehm'maana shrieked, "You dare? There are kits here, human--many of them mere infants. You would condemn them all to death?"

"You already know the answer to that," Joel said evenly. "I care about my wife and children--period. If you have kits here, and they're in danger, that's your fault, not mine. But as for condemning them to death--I suspect that's an exaggeration. I don't think you're big enough idiots to have sealed yourselves in." He grinned. "In fact, before your guards can come pounding on the door, you're going to order an evacuation. That ought to keep everyone out of our hair."

She glared at him. "There is no power for the public-address system."

He shrugged and pushed buttons, and the lights brightened. "Now there is. No tricks, please."

Shooting him a look of pure hatred, Ehm'maana circled around to the control panel. With the power back up, more of its readouts had come to life. With Joel's baleful gaze upon her, she touched a key. "People of the Undercity, your attention please. This is Ehm'maana. You are ordered to evacuate immediately. All citizens report to your emergency stations; security personnel, execute Evacuation Plan A-1. Repeat, Alpha-One."

She spoke Sah'aaran, of course, and I whispered a translation into Joel's ear. When she had finished, she turned to him, scowling. "Are you satisfied, Mr. Abrams?"

He bowed mockingly. "Quite so."

"Good," she said. And with that, she and her brother both reached into their sleeves. Four stingers fired instantly, striking sparks from the wall--but too late. With a muted pop and a bright electric-blue flash, Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana vanished.

###

Swearing viciously, Joel stabbed at his control box, bringing the darkness crashing down once again--but like ghosts at dawn, the Undercity's leaders were gone.

"What," I said, speaking for everyone, "just happened?"

"I haven't a clue," Joel said tightly. Keying his scanpak, he swept the gauntlet through the space behind the desk. "I'm getting some very weird readings," he went on a moment later. "And I don't have time to interpret them. But whatever they did, obviously it required power."

I nodded. "And the Goddess only knows where they went. I think we'd better get out of here--now."

He nodded grimly. "You're right." He glanced around. "Tom, Rae, take the middle--and no complaints, please. Darling, will you take the rear?"

I saluted. "Aye-aye."

He grinned. "That's my commodore. Open the door, Sah'raada. And stay sharp--we don't know who or what might be waiting for us."

"One moment," I said quickly, before the younger man could move.

Joel gazed at me quizzically. "What's up?"

"Just this," I replied. Wrapping my arms around his neck, I pulled his face down to the level of mine, and firmly licked his cheek. "I love you, Joel Abrams."

He kissed me. "Tell me that again," he said, "when we've reached the surface. If you please, Sah'raada?"

We flattened ourselves against the wall on either side of the door, all of us--even the twins--with stingers ready. (I was not entirely thrilled with the idea of giving firearms to teenagers--and not only because it was illegal. But this was hardly the time or place for an argument.) Sah'raada dislodged the chair and set it aside, took a deep breath, and wrenched the door open. Leaping forth, we confronted…nothing. The corridor was dimly-lit and quite empty; neither my eyes nor my ears detected any sign of movement. That was strange, going on eerie, and not a little unsettling.

"Hopefully they're evacuating, like good little troglodytes," Joel muttered. He pointed to the right. "This way; we broke through a maintenance hatch a few corridors away."

He would have set off immediately, but I caught hold of his arm, bringing him to a halt. "Joel, wait," I said. "Sah'larrah and Sah'jinn."

"What about them?"

"We can't leave them," I told him. "Sah'larrah will die--and the Goddess only knows what might happen to Sah'jinn, now that they know he betrayed them."

He peered at me, his brows contracting, and for a terrible moment I feared he'd suggest leaving them to their fate--especially Sah'larrah. But he saw the desperation on my face, and relented with a sigh. "Lead on," he said helplessly. "And God help us."

We set off in the opposite direction, me in the lead and Joel tail-gunning. The sudden change, from prisoners facing execution to armed and dangerous fugitives, was not a little disorienting, and I had to fight to keep my mind focused. For the first time in weeks, I felt a welcoming lessening of parental pressure. No longer must I be both mother and father--but that had its price. There could be no disputes between Joel and me, no arguments over leadership, if we were to keep our kits in control. Even so, I could not bear to abandon Sah'larrah and Sah'jinn--not now.

We dashed through the hallways in near-silence, except for one unfortunate set of ringing, heavy-booted footsteps. Sickbay was quite close--only the darkness made it seem farther--and just minutes later we reached its big double doors. Hearing the voices echoing forth from within, I skidded to a halt, waving my companions to silence. Slowly I edged closer, my ears cocked and my stinger leveled.

There were two of them, both male, speaking in low, angry tones. One was certainly Sah'jinn, but the other was unfamiliar. A definite TB, though--probably a security guard. "Ehm'maana has signaled for evacuation, Doctor," he said urgently. "I have my orders; we must leave now."

"My patient is not yet stable," Sah'jinn replied firmly. "I cannot--will not--leave until he is."

"I could remove you by force…"

"You may try, Sah'maal--but I would not suggest it."

I glanced around the corner. "Neither would I."

They both whirled. Sah'jinn, with expressed claws and twitching tail, crouched beside an exam table, upon which lay a shrunken and pale figure. Opposite stood the guard--Sah'maal, apparently: a large young male with coppery fur, a scowl on his face…and a stinger in his hand. They gazed at me in astonishment, their eyes shifting quickly from my face to my weapon and back again.

I gestured. "Drop it," I told Sah'maal.

Perhaps it was instinct, or mere foolishness; but he actually began to raise his stinger. It got no farther than his hip, though, before I shot him. The discharge caught him in the chest, and he sank to the floor without a sound. "Hello, Sah'jinn," I said with a smile.

"Ehm'ayla," he said in bewilderment. "What in the Dark is going on?"

"An escape, hopefully," I told him. My companions had entered, and stood flanking the door; Sah'jinn gazed at them uneasily. "Sah'raada you already know," I went on. "This is his sister Ehm'teel--and my mate, Joel Abrams."

Gazing at Sah'raada, the doctor's eyes widened. "So it really did work," he whispered. His eyes fell on Joel then, and he stepped forward, smiling broadly. "Mr. Abrams," he said, in tones of admiration. "I have been looking forward to meeting you. I am Sah'jinn; I have had the honor of your wife's friendship these last few weeks."

Joel eyed the young man dubiously, but nonetheless clasped the proffered hand. "Please to meet you," he said. "And call me Joel. I've heard what you did for Sah'raada--and all of us."

Sah'jinn's reply was interrupted: Ehm'teel had spotted Sah'larrah. With a cry of anguish she darted forward, casting herself across his unmoving form. Sah'raada reached for her arm, but I shook my head, and he moved back. "How is he?" I asked Sah'jinn.

He sighed, "Alive," he said. "For the moment. But his heart is badly damaged, and there is little more I can do. He has a very short time to live, I fear."

"Can he travel?"

"Pardon me?"

"We're getting out of here," I explained patiently. "And we're taking him with us. Will he survive the trip?"

"I do not know," he said uncertainly. "As I told Sah'maal, his condition is not truly stable." He sighed. "But we have little choice; if we do nothing, he is most assuredly doomed." Abruptly his whiskers twitched. "Where are Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana?"

"We wish to hell we knew," Joel said grimly. "Gone. Vanished into thin air."

"Then…they know the true state of Sah'raada's memory?"

"They do," I said blandly.

"I am coming with you," Sah'jinn said. He glanced at his patient. "He cannot travel under his own power; but if we carry him…he has perhaps a fifty-fifty chance of reaching the surface alive."

Ehm'teel looked up, her eyes wide with horror. I slipped my arm around her waist, and she clung to me, shuddering pitifully, her face buried in my shoulder. He had to survive, for her sake--and for their kits'. "Good enough," I said. "Sah'raada, please help Sah'jinn with the stretcher."

"I will do it--" Ehm'teel began, but I restrained her with a hand on her arm.

"No," I said firmly. "Not in your condition. Sah'raada?"

"Gladly," he said. He nuzzled his sister's cheek, and then he and Sah'jinn went rapidly to work. Joel and the twins moved to watch the door, my mate's scowl deepening steadily as the seconds ticked by. Catching his eye, I pointed to the slumped form of Sah'maal.

"Would you please make him more comfortable?" I asked. "Or at least get him out from underfoot."

Joel nodded, and beckoned to Tom. Grunting with effort, the two of them hefted the limp body, dumping it upon an adjacent exam table. Joel pried the stinger from between the clenched claws: another item for our arsenal. Peering at Sah'maal, Tom frowned. "I'm glad you stunned him," he told me. "He was one of the guards they sent after me the day this happened." He displayed his broken handcuffs. Looking closer, he grinned. "He's still got a black eye."

"He might have more than that," I said dryly, "if Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana catch up with him." I turned, seeking Sah'raada and Sah'jinn. What's taking so long?

The doctor had retreated into his work-room. Through the open door I watched him frantically tossing equipment--ancient and modern--into a rough grey shoulder-bag, seemingly at random. Meanwhile Sah'raada had found a stretcher, and transferred Sah'larrah onto it, blanket and all, strapping the older man firmly into place. Sah'larrah made no sound, and his eyes remained closed; had I not known better, I would have thought him dead already.

Ehm'teel watched fearfully, clinging tightly to my arm. "What is wrong with him?" she asked in choked tones.

"He suffered at least two major heart attacks," I told her, as gently as I could. "My fault, I fear."

"Will he…will he live?"

I paused. I might have given her an easy, reassuring answer--but I would have been lying, and we both would have known it. If she was anything like me, she wouldn't tolerate being placated. "His chances are poor, I'm afraid. Apparently he's suffered from heart problems for some years…"

She nodded sadly. "You are correct," she agreed. "We told him, Sah'raada and I; we feared that last expedition would be too great a strain. We begged him to consider an artificial heart--but he would not." She sighed. "He always was stubborn…"

How well I know that, I thought ruefully.

"…But I do not understand," she went on. "If he knew he was coming here to stay, why did he not have the surgery first?"

"I…don't think he was planning on long-term survival," I said carefully.

She gasped, and once again pressed her forehead to my shoulder. Sah'jinn had returned from the work-room by then, and I glanced at him irritably. "Are we ready yet?" I nodded at Sah'maal. "He won't stay stunned forever."

"One moment," Sah'jinn said. He donned his scanpak and ran its gauntlet over Sah'larrah's chest, then rubbed a med-patch through the older man's fur into his neck. He nodded. "We are as ready as we can be."

Joel muttered something; it might have been "Finally!" He handed Sah'maal's stinger to Sah'jinn, and then the doctor and Sah'raada took up the stretcher. Our little rebel army having grown by two, we took off running again. This time Ehm'teel and I took the point: me to navigate, and her to lead us to the maintenance hatch they'd jimmied. The corridors remained silent and empty--and that worried me. Where exactly were the "emergency stations" Ehm'maana had mentioned; and what did Evacuation Plan Alpha One involve? And worse: where were Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana--and what were they up to? How they'd managed their vanishing-act I still had no idea; nor could we be certain how far it had taken them. They could be lurking anywhere--literally.

We'd reached the vicinity of their office when I once again heard voices. Ehm'teel and I flattened ourselves against the wall, motioning frantically for the others to remain in the shadows. Slowly I edged forward, clutching my stinger, and peered cautiously around the corner.

There were two of them, male and female, standing close together at the junction of two corridors, beneath a dim and flickering emergency light. Guards, obviously, judging from the stingers clipped to their belts--but their relationship seemed to run deeper than that. Perhaps it was the way their hands were clasped tightly together--or perhaps it was the noticeable roundness of the female's belly. They spoke in low tones, sounding worried.

"What is happening?" the female asked.

Her companion (mate?) shrugged. "I do not know," he said. "We have suffered a power failure, and Ehm'maana has ordered an evacuation. What more can I know?"

"Where are they, then?" the female demanded. "Where are Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana?"

"I do not know."

"Sah'rajj should be leading the evacuation, correct?" the female asked patiently.

"Yes."

"And Ehm'maana should be coordinating repairs."

"Yes."

"And yet the control room is deserted, and the people are leaderless. And come to that, where is the outsider and her kits?"

"They were last seen with Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana," the male said. "My orders were not to disturb them."

"Exactly. And now they are missing as well. Something is wrong, my darling." She waved a hand. "This was not a random event."

"Perhaps," the male said. "But what can we do about it? We have our orders: collect Sah'jinn and Sah'larrah, and head for the escape passage."

"I know that," she replied testily. "But mark my words: if we ever see Sah'rajj or Ehm'maana again, I will be very surprised."

"What do you mean?" he demanded.

"It is over," she stated flatly. "This experiment, this Undercity, is finished. Those two have killed it."

There was a pause; then the male sighed. "You may be right," he said. "Come--let us find Sah'jinn and go. I do not wish to linger here."

"Agreed."

Ehm'teel and I backpedaled frantically into the darkness…but not quickly enough. The male passed us by with nary a glance in our direction, his eyes narrowed thoughtfully. But the female did not. Whether she saw us, or smelled us, I don't know; but she suddenly stopped short--and turned to face me. Our gazes locked, and her eyes widened in recognition. My hand tightened on my stinger, but I hesitated to shoot someone in her condition, unless she made it unavoidable. For an endless second we stared at each other…then, quite deliberately, she turned away, rushing to catch up with her mate before he knew she'd paused.

In relief, I slumped against the wall. Presumably that young woman had once been a TB--but the fanaticism was entirely gone from her eyes. All I'd seen there was a kind of tired disappointment.

Joel sidled up to me. "What's up?" he hissed.

"Rats," I told him. "Deserting the sinking ship."

###

Joel and his companions had chosen their entry-point well.

It lay not far from Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana's office, at the shadow-filled far end of a disused hallway stacked high with dusty crates. A maintenance access, a meter-wide metal hatch, it led directly to the outer sections of the Undercity, and therefore had been welded shut. Someone--probably my husband--had freed it, using a laser cutting torch. It hung askew, dangling from half-melted hinges, hidden behind a pile of hurriedly-shifted boxes. Pushing aside the crates, Joel bowed low. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said grandly, "our escape route. Women and kits first, please."

Getting Sah'larrah through was the hardest part, as might be expected. The stretcher did fit, but only when it was tilted at a sharp angle. The rest of us need only get down on our prayer-bones and crawl. The passage was some three meters long--it must have pierced a load-bearing bulkhead--and at its far end we found an identical hatch, standing ajar. Tumbling through that opening, I felt a rush of cold, damp, musty air against my face. I climbed to my feet in total darkness, utterly disoriented--but only for a few seconds, before Ehm'teel pulled a flashlight from her belt and switched it on.

Tom and Joel were the last to emerge, and as they did, Joel slammed the hatch and dogged it down. "All right," he said, rather uselessly brushing off his knees. "We're about ready; just need to collect our baggage."

Stacked nearby were three slim black backpacks, about the size of the twins' day-packs; left here, obviously, so as not to be an encumbrance during the commando raid. Rummaging through the packs, our rescuers passed around flashlights, and Joel handed me a commpak--once again, my own, an old and trusted friend. Combined Forces equipment, all of it: obviously Joel had been in cahoots with Admiral Ehm'rael--and she'd ransacked the local supply depot. Must be wonderful to be an admiral, I thought, not for the first time. Wonder if I'll live long enough to find out?

The flashlights were thin, flat models with elastic wristbands. Slipping mine onto my right hand, I immediately switched it on, knowing there was no need to conserve its power: the atomic batteries would far outlive me. The others did the same, and that dark space was suddenly filled with random stabs of pure white light. As the three Ninjas settled their packs, I gazed around curiously.

We had entered a part of the old Undercity, at a point very near the structure's equator. At first glance it seemed virtually identical to the currently-inhabited section--but there were differences. Here the corridors were a little wider, the doors smaller but spaced farther apart--and here too, some attempt had been made to conceal the pipes and conduits. But what struck me most forcefully was the appearance of age. In the areas brought back to life by Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana, everything was bright, clean, and in good repair. But here, a thick pall of dust lay over everything, tickling my nose as our feet stirred it up, and vivid splotches of rust burst through the peeling paint. Doors hung crazily from corroded hinges; wires and ducts had fallen to the floor; and here and there the walls seemed to have buckled, bent out of shape by slow, inexorable geological shifts. No wonder Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana needed to expand their population: to reclaim this would require many thousands of man-hours.

The air was musty, as in a mine or cellar, and had a damp, clammy feeling. Oxygen should not be a problem--but the temperature might. Though far from freezing, the tunnels were undeniably cold, and I was not surprised to see my half-naked kits begin to shiver, wrapping their arms around their abdomens. Why didn't Joel bring some proper clothes for them? I wondered angrily--but then, with a rush of shame, I realized how ludicrous that thought was. Of necessity, my husband and his companions had traveled light, their equipment minimal at best. And as soon as we got moving, the twins should warm up; they were, after all, covered head to toe with fur.

Joel cinched up his pack-straps. "I'd like to get some distance behind us; we can talk later. Ehm'teel, you've got the lead."

We set off then, not exactly at a run, but at a pace much brisker than a walk. Behind Ehm'teel came Joel and the twins; then Sah'raada and Sah'jinn with the stretcher, and finally me. Beneath my toes, the deckplates were cold and rough, but not slimy; the footing was secure enough, though one had to watch out for debris and pot-holes. This was not the place to cut a foot or turn an ankle. We journeyed in near-silence, punctuated only by the rasp of our breathing, and the sharp staccato rap of a single pair of boots.

As we went, the trip took on a definite--and nightmarish--pattern. At every junction we paused briefly, while Ehm'teel keyed her scanpak to search for the route-markers they'd left on their way down. Sometimes we continued on straight, but often we turned to the right or left. The corridors were curved, just barely, so that we could never see more than eight or ten meters ahead. At intervals we entered a stairwell and ascended perhaps five meters, the treads so rusty and creaky that I held my breath, for fear they would crumble. At the top of each flight we entered another long curving corridor, and each time we turned in the opposite direction. Very soon I felt as if I was trapped in a dream, the kind where you run and run but cover no ground. How the others felt I don't know; we didn't waste our breath on unnecessary words. Like me, they battled on in silence, grim and determined.

We continued thus for the better part of an hour, traversing six stairways and endless lengths of corridor, before Joel finally called a halt. And good thing too: my legs were screaming, my heart pounding hard enough to burst through my ribs. I am too old for this.

Finding a patch of floor relatively free of debris, we sat, resting our backs against the pitted wall. Joel and his companions rummaged in their packs for water bottles, and passed them around. "Go easy on that," my husband warned. "We've got a long way to go."

He was silent for a time, letting us drink and catch our breath; then he cleared his throat and continued. "Time to regroup," he said. "I'm sorry about the forced march--but I think you'll all agree, we needed to put some distance between ourselves and the guards."

"One thing you ought to know, darling," I said. Titling my head back, I pointed at my throat. "These contain listening and tracking devices."

"Collar ID, eh?" he mused. He bent close, examining the thick black band in the beam of his flashlight. "And obviously they don't come off easily." He glanced at Sah'jinn. "With the power off, would they still function?"

"I…was not privy to the technical details," the doctor said. "I suspect not, though. The guards do not possess portable tracking equipment; it is centralized in the control room."

"Good enough," Joel said. "We've come pretty far, and our odds of being tracked or bugged through all this metal are pretty small--but I'm in no hurry to turn the electricity back on." He paused. "Ehm'maana ordered evacuation plan Alpha-One. What exactly does that involve, Doctor?"

"Apart from the one you forced," Sah'jinn said, "there exists just one opening to the uninhabited sections. Its location is known only to Sah'rajj, Ehm'maana, and certain of their staff. Alpha-One is the highest-priority plan; it calls for everyone to drop whatever they are doing, and head immediately to specified gathering areas. From there, the guards would lead them out. Then, of course, they would begin the climb to the surface."

"Where would they come out?" Joel asked.

"I do not know for certain," Sah'jinn said. "But they would not use Sah'larrah's old access."

"All right," Joel said. "It seems unlikely we'll run into them, and I see no reason to alter our route. It's going to take about two days, I'm afraid, and it won't be a particularly comfortable trip. But we have water, and emergency rations, and a few survival blankets; we'll just have to make do."

As he spoke, my heart sank. Illogical, I know: but somehow my subconscious had equated "escape" with "freedom," as if we could somehow teleport ourselves to the surface. Judging from the despairing glance the twins exchanged, they felt the same. Another two days… I was not certain I could endure it; not at my age. But we had precious little choice.

My gloomy thoughts were interrupted by Sah'jinn. "No," he said firmly. "That is not acceptable."

Joel gazed at him, his eyebrows lifting. "Pardon me, Doctor?"

Sah'jinn pointed at the stretcher. "Sah'larrah cannot survive that long, Mr. Abrams," he said quietly. "We must get him to Sah'salaan General within hours, or he will die."

Sitting beside me, Ehm'teel stiffened, choking back a sob. Joel shrugged helplessly. "We're deep underground," he pointed out. "And we can only move so fast. It's going to take time--unless you have a better idea."

"Perhaps I do," Sah'jinn said thoughtfully. Searching briefly through his apron pockets, he brought forth a small object: a flat grey box, its upper surface studded with buttons and dials surrounding a tiny readout screen. Like our flashlights, it was mounted on an elastic armband. Accepting the device gingerly, Joel frowned. "What is it?"

"I do not know for certain," Sah'jinn said. "I found it fastened to Sah'larrah's arm--and I know that Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana both carry identical units. It is said they have a private way of coming and going…"

"And they reached up their sleeves just before they vanished," Joel said thoughtfully. He shook his head. "But what could this have to do with it--?"

"It is a nexus locator," a weak and hoarse voice said. I spun, seeking its source--and saw to my amazement that the speaker was Sah'larrah.

Ehm'teel, Sah'jinn and I dropped to our knees beside the stretcher, and the doctor keyed his scanpak. "Sah'larrah," Ehm'teel said. "Can you hear me?"

His eyes opened, just a slit, and the ghost of a smile flicked across his pale muzzle. With a supreme effort, he reached up to brush her cheek. "Ehm'teel," he said. "My dear child. I have been told…that you are carrying my kits. Is that true?"

She took his hand and guided it to her abdomen. "Yes," she said. "It is."

His eyes widened. "Then I must live." He glanced at Sah'jinn. "May I?" he asked, like a kit requesting another slab of meat.

"You need a new heart," Sah'jinn told him. "And you need it now. If we can get you to the hospital in time…"

"I understand," Sah'larrah said. "It is in the hands of the Goddess." He beckoned, and Ehm'teel bent over him. "I will survive, my dear," he went on. "And if you will allow it, our kits will have a father."

"Of course I will," she said, with a watery smile "I only wish we could be allowed to bond."

He smiled. "Miracles do happen."

Joel cleared his throat. "I hate to interrupt…"

Sah'larrah chucked, but desisted when it threatened to dissolve into a cough. "Of course," he said. He took a deep, careful breath. "That device provides access to a transit network," he said. His voice was beginning to fade, and we had to lean close to hear. He shook his head. "I was never brave enough to use it--but Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana have."

Joel frowned again. "What kind of 'network'?" he asked.

Sah'larrah was beginning to slip away again, his eyes drifting closed. Almost soundlessly he whispered a pair of words, then lapsed into unconsciousness. Ehm'teel glanced fearfully at Sah'jinn, and the young doctor plied his scanpak.

"His condition is unchanged," he said finally. "His body has wisdom; it knows it must conserve its energy."

She reached across the stretcher to grasp the front of his apron between her claws. "You must save him, Doctor," she said urgently. "You must."

"I…" he began, and swallowed. "I will do the best I can."

Joel drew me aside. "What did he say?" he asked softly. "I couldn't make it out."

I shook my head. "I could barely hear him either," I said. "But I think it was 'tiny-tunnel.'"

The words meant nothing to me--but obviously, they did to Joel. The color drained from his face, and he glanced fearfully at the little device, as if it might bite him. "My God," he uttered. "Can it be--?"

"Can it be what?" I asked, perplexed.

He didn't answer immediately. Touching buttons, he brought the thing to life; then he activated his scanpak. Finally he glanced up at me. "Now I understand those readings I got after Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana vanished," he said. "This thing controls a network of small, short-distance, made-to-order hypertunnels." He quirked a grin. "Sound familiar?"

I nodded, rubbing absently at the bare patch encircling my right wrist. While the results of my return trip to Hellhole--renewed body, restored sight--were quite real, the circumstances still seemed hallucinatory, like something from a particularly bizarre--if vivid--dream. And while much of what had happened to me remained unexplained, the sensor readings taken by Zelazny had led Alliance scientists to view hypertunnels in a completely new way--as something that could be manipulated. My unknown hosts had somehow found it possible to toss hypertunnels around with the reckless abandon of my kits playing volleyball on the beach, and over the last twenty years, researchers had taken great strides toward discovering how. But that was as much as I knew: it was not a field of research I spent a lot of time keeping up with.

"They've been doing experiments at the Astrophysics Center on Quadria for years," Joel went on. "The science involved is outside my area of expertise…"

"But not Sah'rajj's," I said, with a flash of understanding. "He's an astrophysicist."

"Do tell," Joel said wryly. "But at any rate, the system seems to be arranged like a spiderweb: to get anywhere, you have to make multiple jumps, hub to hub. I've been plotting the coordinate settings in this thing's memory against Ehm'teel's maps. There are nexi all over the Undercity; you could get anywhere inside the structure within a dozen jumps. There was even one inside Sah'larrah's old access shaft."

My jaw dropped, as a mystery I'd shelved more than three weeks ago was suddenly answered. So that was how they'd "acquired" Rae: when she slipped from Tom's grip, she fell directly into a hypertunnel. Tom must have been too far up the shaft. "Is there by any chance a hub near the new shaft, the one the CF dug?" I asked.

Glancing at me quizzically, he punched buttons, then nodded. "Yes, there is," he said. "No more than half a kilometer away, near the edge of the cave-in. How did you know?"

I pointed to our son, who sat listening intently, an arm around his sister's shoulders. "That's how they got Tom."

Joel nodded thoughtfully. "I understand," he said. "And that's good news: we came in through the new shaft." His face fell. "But there's bad news too. For us to use this thing, I'll have to bring the power back up--and leave it up. And that means our friends Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana will also have access to the net." He touched my collar. "And they might be able to track us again."

"Bottom line?" I asked blandly.

He grinned. "Bottom line…well, obviously the system works--and it could save us a tremendous amount of time." He nodded at Sah'larrah. "And possibly his life as well. I'd like to get closer to the surface before we try it, though." He keyed his scanpak. "If we keep going for another three hours--maybe four--we can cut it to just two jumps."

There were several groans, and Rae closed her eyes, as if in pain. Another three or four hours in the Goddess-cursed place…for a moment I thought Ehm'teel would object, or Sah'jinn; but though they frowned, they remained silent. "Well," Tom said slowly, "it's better than a two-day hike…"

"All right," Joel said. He slipped the nexus locator onto his arm, and then he stood, extending a hand to help me up. "Let's get moving, shall we?" He winked. "Don't want to get too comfortable."

###

And so our nightmare march began again. For me at least, the brief rest had done more harm than good: my muscles had locked solid, and it was endless, painful minutes before they loosened. Gritting my teeth in anger, I forced my legs to keep moving. Dammit, I thought, what's wrong with me? I've climbed Whitney; I've done the Pacific Crest Trail. Am I really getting that old and infirm?

Joel and I walked hand-in-hand, taking up the rear, speaking quietly together. To touch him, to hear his voice, after so long…As the endless, lonely days dragged on, I'd truly begun to believe I was doomed to an eternity without him. His presence beside me now--and only that--made it all endurable: the darkness, the cold, the claustrophobia. And of course we had three very eventful weeks to catch up on.

"Did you really believe I'd left the planet?" he asked.

I nodded, shame-faced. "I'm afraid so," I admitted. "I thought…well, that Father might have kicked you out." I paused. "Did he treat you very badly?"

"Not at all," he said. He grinned. "Well, maybe a little, after I was released from jail. But I hadn't been back at his house an hour when Admiral Ehm'rael sent for me; and later, she told Sah'surraa what was happening. After that, he was absolutely cooperative. Unbelievably so, in fact. Anything I needed--money, information, whatever--was mine instantly. Without his resources, I don't know if any of this would have been possible."

I chuckled. Admiral Ehm'rael's influence at work again: despite having been bonded to mother for sixty years, Father still had tender feelings for his first love. Not that he would have admitted it, of course. "I'm afraid Rae took the news rather hard," I said. "She came close to giving up."

He looked up quickly. Tom and Rae were a few steps ahead, deep in conversation. Joel had already taken note of his daughter's bony frame; now he was putting two and two together. "I'll make it up to her," he vowed. "Whatever it takes, I will."

I squeezed his hand. "I know you will," I said. "But right now, just having you back is enough."

Joel paused, then went on fearfully, "You haven't said much about what happened to you." He indicated my kilt and double-sash top, my collar and shortened mane. "Who are these people? What did they do to you and the twins, and why?"

I told him. Speaking quietly, my voice sometimes barely under control, I gave him an account of everything that had happened since that terrible night in the service tunnels. Through his hand, clasped tightly with mine, I felt his emotions: anger, fear, confusion…and even the occasional flicker of amusement. I held nothing back, spared no detail, knowing that Joel was not merely seeking information: he was helping me purge myself. And indeed, just to have his sympathetic ear was more therapeutic than years of psychoanalysis. When finally I reached the end--the events of that very morning--he stopped in his tracks. "They were going to do what?" he demanded, making the others glance back in alarm.

"You heard me," I said quietly.

He shook his head. "My God," he said in horror. "If we'd been half an hour later…"

"It's probably best not to talk about it," I told him. "Or even think about it. It didn't happen; the twins are unviolated, and our minds are still intact. Concentrate on that."

He sighed. "You're right." He bared his teeth, in fair approximation of a Sah'aaran snarl. "If I'd known, I would have shot them on sight." He peered at me closely. "Are you…all right, Ayla? Did they hurt you?"

"No," I assured him. "They didn't. For the most part, they were afraid to. And…I'll be fine, darling. Just take me home, and everything will be wonderful."

He kissed me. "That's my Ehm'ayla." His gaze shifted. "And them--?"

"They aren't hurt either," I said. "Tom had a few bruises, but they're gone now. They'd like some real clothes and more comfortable collars…but get them back to their friends and the ocean, and they'll recover. Faster than we might expect."

He nodded slowly. "I think you're right," he agreed. "Though one of them definitely needs a high-protein diet." He paused. "Something you ought to know, darling--our daughter is bonded with Sah'larssh."

I glanced at him in surprise. "I know," I said. "She confessed days ago. But how--?"

"After she was listed dead, he…collapsed. Had to be hospitalized briefly, in fact. The doctors tested his hormones--and that was that." He shook his head. "I still can't understand why they tried to deny it…"

"I think I'll let you discuss that with Rae yourself," I said. Sah'larssh's violent reaction didn't surprise me: the death of a bond-mate is the hardest blow any Sah'aaran can endure. Many don't survive it. In fact…"Goddess!"

"What's wrong?"

I lowered my voice. "Ehm'tassaa," I said. "If she heard about Tom through the Interplanetary News…"

Joel nodded. "I understand," I said. "And I wish I could tell you she didn't--but she most likely did. I was too busy to think about the consequences, though." He shook his head. "Poor girl--we'll have to hyperzap her as soon as we're out."

"Agreed." If she hadn't already jumped from an upper-story window…

He kissed me again, and I laid my head on his shoulder. We lapsed into silence then: conserving energy perhaps; or maybe we'd simply run out of things to say that we'd care to have overheard.

For the next two hours we walked steadily. The basic pattern remained as before, and was repeated over and over, until I could almost believe the Undercity truly was endless. A length of curving corridor, lined with rusting doors and strewn with debris; a rickety stairway; and then another identical corridor. At intervals came breaks in the monotony: places where gaping holes in the floor, or the twisted wreckage of a collapsed ceiling, forced us to detour. As yet we were deep inside, where time had wrought relatively little damage; in the outer fringes--according to Ehm'teel--the route was considerably more serpentine. Thanks to Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana, we could bypass the worst of that.

We took turns carrying the stretcher--all of us except Rae. She wanted to, but Joel forbid it: she was not up to the task. She kept up with us, and answered her brother's anxious glances with a nod and a brave smile; but clearly, she was struggling. Anorexia and weight-loss had begun to catch up with her, making her almost literally a shadow of her former self.

…And as such, it was only a matter of time before her strength failed. She soldiered on for as long as she could; but then--tripped perhaps by a piece of debris--she stumbled, staggered, and fell full-length on her stomach, with a gasp of surprise and pain. Joel and I darted forward, as did Sah'jinn and Sah'raada; Tom and Ehm'teel put down the stretcher and came running too. Joel was closest, and knelt down beside his daughter, raising her in his arms. "Rae, sweetie," he said, "are you all right?"

She smiled. "Yes, Daddy" she said faintly. "I'm fine."

Joel peered at her in concern--and well he might: even from where I stood, I could see the violent trembling of her muscles. "No, you're not," he said firmly. He glanced around. "Rest break."

With a chorus of tired sighs, we eased ourselves to the floor. I'd finally managed to find my old hiking stride, but my legs felt heavy as neutronium, and my feet were being rubbed raw by the deckplates. Joel, Sah'raada and Ehm'teel reached into their packs, bringing forth a handful of emergency-ration bars as well as the inevitable water bottles. Joel handed the bars around, one apiece--but to Rae he gave two. She immediately handed one back. "If one is enough for everyone else," she said, "it's enough for me too."

"You're taking two, young lady," Joel replied sternly. "And you're eating both. Look at you; there's nothing left. How can you pitch nine straight when you're just skin and bones?" He rubbed her shrunken stomach. "I swear I feel your spine."

"I…haven't been interested in food lately," she said.

"You are now," he told her. "Eat!"

My opinion of CF emergency rations is generally low--but there and then, with breakfast hours in the past and lunch missed entirely, those little meat-concentrate bars were beyond price. I wolfed the thing down in two bites, scarcely bothering to remove the wrapper; heartburn be damned.

Beside me, Sah'jinn crouched low, checking Sah'larrah's condition. Finally, with a sigh, he settled back and accepted the ration bar I handed him. Peeling back the foil, he took a slow, absent-minded bite--and at that moment I made my decision. "Sah'jinn?"

He turned, peering at me almost fearfully. "Yes, Commodore?"

"There's something I need to ask you," I said. No point in switching to Sah'aaran; it would not have given us much more privacy.

He nodded in resignation. "I already know what it will be," he said. "But go ahead."

"Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana's population-expansion project…" I began.

"You want to know how I became involved," he said flatly.

"No," I said, "not really. Knowing them, I imagine they would have gone ahead, with or without your participation."

He glanced aside. "Yes," he confirmed. "Though that scarcely lessens my shame. I knew I could not prevent it; but perhaps I could make the process somewhat less traumatic. I do not know how well I succeeded…"

"What I want to know," I said, "is how far it went. How many were involved?"

"Five females have given birth because of the project," he said, "and another eight are pregnant. All older than your daughter--though that scarcely mattered to Sah'rajj or Ehm'maana. And virtually all the males, from thirteen up, have made…donations." He grinned ruefully. "Which, due to the power failure, are rapidly defrosting. Very soon they will be useless--if that is any consolation." Sobering then, shook his head sadly. "I shall accept the consequences for what I have done--before the law, and before the Goddess. That I swear. And if this has destroyed our friendship…I am sorry."

I paused. I'd been on the verge of challenging him, demanding to know what he would have done if my kits had been delivered into his hands. But what was the point? Why force him to answer a painful--but entirely academic--question? It hadn't happened, and that was enough. And…a long time ago I'd known another young man faced with an impossible situation. He too made some less-than-optimal decisions--but I'd finally found it in my heart to forgive him, because only in the Goddess do we find perfection.

"No," I said. "It hasn't. I'm certainly not in a position to judge you."

He nodded, a look of profound gratitude in his eyes. "Thank you."

Embarrassed, I turned away--to see my daughter fast asleep (and purring) in her father's arms, two crumpled balls of foil lying beside her. Joel grinned ruefully, and then, with real regret, he shook her. "Rae, sweetie, wake up."

She did, with a gasp. "Daddy," she said. "What--?"

"I'm sorry," he said. "If it was up to me, I'd let you sleep. But it's time to move on."

She nodded. "I know." With a grimace of pain, she climbed to her feet, waving aside his proffered hand. "I'm feeling a lot better now."

"You just needed a few hundred calories," Joel said with a smile. "We all did." He glanced around. "All right--not much farther now."

"Pack out the trash?" I asked, indicating the strewn wrappers.

He grinned. "Screw the trash."

###

A little more than an hour later Joel came to a halt, so suddenly that I bumped into him. "What's up?" I asked irritably, rubbing my nose.

He grinned. "We're here," he said. "Or at least I think we are." Keying his scanpak, he turned a full circle. A moment later he nodded triumphantly. "This is it--our first nexus."

I peered around closely--but saw nothing, apart from a patch of rough, rusty deckplates, identical to that which had been savaging my feet for hours. "You're sure?"

He sounded hurt. "Of course I'm sure." He slid Sah'larrah's box from his arm, and frowned at its tiny screen. "Now, if I can figure out how this thing works…"

About time, too, I thought, gazing at the weary faces surrounding us. Sah'raada and Sah'jinn once again had control of the stretcher; I didn't care to contemplate how sore their arms must have been. Even the indefatigable Tom looked exhausted, and Rae was at the end of her rope, buoyed only by her brother's arm around her waist. None of us could have gone on much longer.

While the others settled in to rest, I remained beside Joel, watching anxiously as he struggled to learn how to summon a hypertunnel. I didn't doubt that he would, given time--he was, after all, one of the CF's top contractors--but all the same, something wasn't quite right. I knew my mate, knew his moods, and his narrowed eyes and tight jaw told me that he was troubled. Finally, unable to stand it any longer, I cleared my throat. "Joel," I said softly, "what aren't you telling me?"

He peered at me uncertainly for a moment, chewing his lower lip, then sighed and shook his head. "To be honest," he said, "I don't like this whole idea. I'd sooner try to stick an extension cord into a supernova."

I frowned. "Why? Are the tiny-tunnels dangerous?"

"Let's just say they aren't one hundred percent reliable," he said flatly. "I've read about those experiments on Quadria--presumably your friend Sah'rajj did too. It's all highly encouraging; someday we'll all be using the damned things." he grinned and ran a hand across his scalp. "Myself, I'm a little less than comfortable with the idea of messing around with the fabric of time and space."

"But--?"

He sighed again. "But, we don't have much choice. Dr. Sah'larrah certainly can't survive another two days down here." He paused, and glanced worriedly over his shoulder. A little distance away, Ehm'rael sat slumped against the wall, her face in her hands and Tom's arm around her shoulders. "I'm not sure if she can either."

I nodded soberly. "I'm afraid you're right."

"All right," he said briskly, turning to the others. "This is it. I'm going to bring the power back up now. It should take only a couple minutes for the system to reinitialize, and then we can give it a try. If I widen the field to maximum, and if we stand close together, I think it will take us all in one shot. After that we'll have to hike to the next node. And we'd better make it snappy: we don't know what Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana might be up to. Any questions?"

There were none. Reservations, yes--but no questions. Pulling his cobbled-together remote-control from his belt, Joel tapped buttons. Far below, the thermocouples would be coming back to life, and in the heart of the Undercity, the lights brightening. Or so we assumed; we had no way to know for certain--but as the minutes passed, the telltales on Sah'larrah's device winked green, one by one. We fell silent, knowing our collars might once again be giving us away. Our words, we could guard--but the only defense against the tracking devices was speed.

Joel manipulated controls, studied the results--and nodded. "All right," he said. "We're ready. I don't know what this will feel like…"

"I do," I said. Sah'jinn, Sah'raada and Ehm'teel gazed at me quizzically, but Joel and the kits merely smiled. "It shouldn't be any worse than a moment of disorientation and a bright light." Let us pray…

We gathered together, with Joel in the center, pressed as close as Sah'larrah's stretcher would allow; and as my mate made the final adjustments, I struggled to control my claws and tail. With preternatural clarity, a memory more than twenty years old had come flooding back: a hypertunnel, invisible to the naked eye but horrifyingly evident on my pod's scanners, reaching up from Hellhole's surface to engulf me and send me the Goddess knew where. That one was created by unknown beings, whose technology made ours seem like the mewling of kittens in a playpen. But this one…Joel counted it down: "Five…four…three…two…one…"--and there was no turning back.

The blue flash was blinding-bright, the wave of dizziness quite unpleasant--but both were mercifully brief. Opening my eyes, I found myself standing in a ruined corridor, so familiar-looking that for a few seconds I wondered if our hyperjump had failed. But Ehm'teel consulted her scanpak, and nodded in satisfaction. "We have traveled almost three hundred vertical meters," she said. "And some distance north as well."

Success buoyed our spirits, to the point where we faced the prospect of another hour's walk with something like equanimity. Finally we reached the second node, and Joel went to work again on Sah'larrah's device, reprogramming it. "All right," he said at length. "Another few seconds and we're home free."

"Wait a minute, Dad," Tom said. "We'll arrive in the same service tunnel where I was snatched?"

"That's right," Joel said. "Is that a problem?"

"What if it's still flooded?" Tom asked. "I mean--I almost drowned up there."

"Unlikely," Sah'raada put in mildly. "The Interval was all but over when we came down, three days ago. The tunnel was damp and slimy--but that was all."

"Oh," Tom said, sounding embarrassed. I couldn't blame him, though, because I'd been about to raise the same objection. Time had telescoped during our captivity; hard to believe that Second-Summer had already begun. By now we should already have been home on Terra.

"Good point, though," Joel said. "We should all watch our footing."

The change was instantaneous, and startling, as we were deposited in the service duct. The corridors we'd passed through these last few hours had been musty and uncomfortable--but for the most part, dry. Heeding Joel's warning, I brought my sense of balance to full alert--and a good thing too, because five centimeters of slippery ooze was suddenly squelching up between my toes. A cold, damp draft slapped me in the face, bringing with it a half-remembered disgusting odor. Most of us were used to it in some measure, but Sah'jinn coughed and sputtered.

I turned a slow circle, shining my light around the huge dripping space-and halfway around I stopped, jolted. Less than three meters away was the leading edge of the cave-in, the one that had trapped us so many days ago. I stepped forward carefully. A huge mass of broken stone and concrete, it entirely blocked the tunnel, floor to ceiling, and little rivulets of water dribbled miserably from the interstices. Somehow it gave the impression of being poised, ready to fall at any second. I shivered, wrapping my arms around myself. No wonder the CF had been so quick to declare Rae and me dead; I could scarcely believe Joel and I had managed to outrun that rocky juggernaut.

Joel was riding high, which I could well understand: despite my exhaustion, and despite the chill and the stink, my heart was soaring as well. We'd survived the homemade hyperjumps without apparent harm--and now, mere meters separated us from the surface. He pointed over his shoulder, into the inky darkness of the open tunnel. "The new access is about half a kilometer that way," he said. "Be careful--it's not easy walking."

That much was certainly true: already I was re-learning the futility of toe-claws in this place. Had the slime withstood the flooding, or had it grown back when the waters subsided? Hard to say--but it was once again thick and lush, and slick as ice underfoot.

Eagerly, we turned to go, but Sah'jinn caught Joel by the arm. "Mr. Abrams?"

"Call me Joel. What's up, Doc?"

"Joel, might it not be best for us to call for assistance, if we can? It is vital we get Sah'larrah to the hospital as soon as possible."

Joel nodded thoughtfully. "Good idea." He glanced at me and smiled. "Would you care to do the honors, darling? You're the one with authority."

"I'll give it a shot," I said, "but I can't promise anything."

The commpak I wore was my own, one I'd carried for the better part of twenty years--and modified, by my own hand, in a way that the CF still officially frowned upon, to greatly increase its signal-strength. There was still a lot of metal and rock above our heads; if my signal couldn't punch through, nobody's could. I reached for the little microphone…

I heard a sudden, strange sound behind me then: a sharp exhalation, halfway to a cough. I half-turned, seeking the source--and something slammed into my left side. My feet were swept out from under me, and I fell, tumbling and skidding helplessly through the ooze. Joel shouted, and someone--Ehm'rael?--screamed in terror.

Finally I came to a halt, against the wall. I turned over, struggling to get my legs beneath me, but my breath had been knocked out, and my feet kept skidding out from under me. Kneeling then, bracing myself with one hand, I turned back to the center of the tunnel…and my heart tried to stop.

Sah'rajj. Wild-eyed, his long robe filthy and torn, trembling violently with strange, twisting spasms, he stood at bay, his pale face incandescent in the beams of six flashlights. And he had my daughter. He held her pulled tight against him, her back against his chest. With one arm he pinioned her hands, while the other was wrapped around her throat, tight as a garrote, pulling her head back sharply. She struggled wildly, gasping for air, her eyes wide with fear.

The others stood scattered, frozen--but not Joel. Slowly, with fire in his eyes, he stepped forward. He held his improvised remote-control in his left hand, but its flashing lights were unchanged: nearly to the surface now, we had far exceeded its range. His stinger was aimed at Sah'rajj's forehead, and I could clearly read his mind: stun them both. Rae would soon wake, and no harm done. But he hesitated, fearing--as did I--that Sah'rajj might crush her larynx even as the stinger-charge took him. "Let her go, you bastard," Joel growled.

Sah'rajj turned his mad, unfocused red eyes on my mate. He couldn't reach his nexus summoner, not without releasing Rae--but escape was not his intention. His entire body shook, and when he spoke his words were broken, barely comprehensible. "Murderer!" he screamed.

Joel froze. "What are you talking about?"

The arm tightened, and Rae gagged. My heart was racing, and my claws were expressed; I might already have launched myself at his throat--except that I still couldn't manage to stand.

"You killed my sister!" Sah'rajj cried. "You turned off the power. The hypertunnel closed before she could make it through, and she…she…" the words trailed off into gasping sobs.

Joel went pale, and a cold wave of horror swept down my spine. "Oh my God," he whispered. Too late now, he--and I--understood the consequences of his actions. Sah'rajj's tame hypertunnels required power, and lots of it. By switching off the electricity, Joel had interrupted Ehm'maana's transit--and the consequences of that didn't bear thinking about. Joel was CF-trained; he'd seen the results of bad hyperjumps, as had I.

"Sah'rajj, listen to me," he said quietly. "I am genuinely sorry for your sister--but harming my daughter solves nothing. If you do, I'll blow your head off; you know that. Let her go, and we'll talk."

"Oh, how noble!" Sah'rajj sneered. Rae was having trouble breathing, I saw; her tongue lolling and her eyes glassy. This could not go on much longer. "But wasted words. Our ancestors had a saying: 'blood for blood.'"

"All right," Joel said. Slowly, deliberately, he put down his stinger and remote-control, and spread his arms wide. "Blood for blood, you say. A life for a life. I killed your sister. My daughter has done nothing to you. Let her go, and then you can do what you like with me."

I almost cried out, and jammed my knuckles into my teeth to hold back the scream. He could afford no distractions. Sah'rajj stood blinking rapidly, as if confused by Joel's words. The change in him--from cold, calculating sadist to wide-eyed trembling maniac--was sudden, complete--and inexplicable. The result of grief? Ehm'maana had been his enabler, that much was certain: a willing partner in their sibling co-dependency. Or was it something more? Had he too been damaged by the aborted hyperjump? His body--such as it was--seemed undamaged; but the brain is a terribly fragile thing…

I caught a glimpse of motion then--and realized, with a sick wave of horror, that the situation had suddenly become worse. Slowly, as stealthily as only a Sah'aaran can, Tom was sneaking up on Sah'rajj. Dear Goddess, no! I prayed. Don't let this happen! He doesn't know what he's doing… But Tom kept moving, creeping around behind Sah'rajj and Rae, his claws expressed, his teeth bared, and his eyes smoldering with rage. He approached silently, having set aside his flashlight and stinger--but he had never been trained as a hunter. Surely Sah'rajj would hear him…

But he did not; or, if he did, the sound did not register. Joel saw, of course; he could scarcely avoid it--but his expression remained impassive, his eyes locked with Sah'rajj's, drawing the madman's attention solely to him.

Sah'rajj laughed, a horrible, high-pitched sound. "No," he said. "I know you, human; I know that this--" he shook Rae violently--"is more precious than life to you. I might enjoy killing you--but it will hurt you far worse to stand and watch as I break her neck."

But he never got the chance--because at that moment, in a blur of movement too rapid for my poor aging eyes, the impasse broke. Tom had crept up until he stood only a meter behind Sah'rajj; and now he cupped his hands around his mouth and bellowed, "Hey!"

Sah'rajj started violently and half-spun, dragging Rae with him; but his grip around her neck loosened slightly--and that was all she needed. With all her remaining strength, she stomped down on Sah'rajj's shin, her toe-claws sinking into his foot. He cried out, letting go of her hands, and she drove both elbows into his ribs. His shriek of pain cut off in a sudden grunt, and he bent far forward; she twisted free and turned to run.

Had she been a little stronger, or had a little more air in her lungs, she might have eluded him; but as rapidly as she wormed away, his hand shot out to grab her. He was trying for her tail, I think, but missed, and grasped instead the back of her belt. He spun her around to face him--and in fear and rage, she struck. Balling her right fist, she socked him squarely in the jaw. That arm, once a coiled steel spring, capable of delivering a hundred-and-fifty KPH fastball…if it had retained all its former strength, Sah'rajj would have been knocked flat. But it did not. He staggered back, dragging her with him until she had the presence of mind to unbuckle her belt. The kilt came away in his hand, and she stumbled away--but not before Sah'rajj hooked his claws deep into her thigh, laying open her leg in four long strips, from hip to knee. She screamed and fell, her leg suddenly covered with blood. Rubbing his jaw, he started toward her…

…And then it was Tom's turn. My son, the ace first-baseman, power-hitter, rock-climber, swimmer, surfer…he had lost little of his strength, and none of his appetite. With a scream of pure, primal hatred, he pounced. He landed full upon Sah'rajj's back, and the two of them went down, a hissing, snarling, tangled ball of fur, limbs, tails, teeth and claws.

In less than thirty seconds, it was all over. Sah'rajj was older than Tom--but my son was larger, and in far better condition than the diminutive albino. Even if Sah'rajj had retained full control of his body, the results were foreordained. When silence fell, he lay flat on his back, my son kneeling atop his chest. Tom's left hand covered Sah'rajj's face like a mask, and the claws of his right were clenched around the older man's throat.

The rest of us had watched, paralyzed with shock; but it was Joel who recovered first. Snatching up his stinger, he darted across, and laid his hand on his son's shoulder. "Tom!"

Tom's head snapped up, his eyes feral and his teeth bared. He snarled, like a predator defending his prey--but Joel stood firm. "Tom," he repeated. "Son, listen to me. It's over."

Tom shook himself, and his expression changed. He glanced down in horror at his hands, and then, in a single swift movement, he climbed to his feet and backed away. "Dad," he said. "I…I'm sorry."

"Don't be," Joel said, embracing him. "You just saved your sister's life. Help the doctor take care of her, please. While I deal with this…thing."

Tom glanced quickly at Rae. She lay on the floor a few meters away, shivering, her face buried in her hands, covered head to toe with slime. Blood ran freely down her right leg, and Sah'jinn crouched beside her, already rummaging in his shoulder-bag. With a final growl at Sah'rajj, Tom knelt and took his sister in his arms.

With a supreme effort, I finally dragged myself to my feet. I glanced anxiously at my daughter--and forced myself to turn away. She was receiving the best care available, under the circumstances; I could do nothing more than get in the way. Let her be, I told myself firmly, swallowing the painful lump of guilt. Slowly and shakily, I made my way over to Joel, and he wrapped an arm around me. "Are you all right, darling?" he asked.

"I think so," I said. "Nothing broken. But I'm going to have some fresh bruises in the morning."

"So is he," Joel commented. Together we knelt to examine Sah'rajj. The erstwhile co-leader of the Undercity lay unmoving, his arms and legs splayed. He was alive, and seemed essentially undamaged--Tom has restrained himself--but his face was quite vacant, and he stared unblinkingly at the ceiling, a ribbon of drool running from the corner of his mouth. He did not react as Joel waved a hand in front of his eyes, and when he lifted one of his hands and let it drop, it flopped loosely into the ooze.

"What's wrong with him?" I asked.

"I don't know," Joel said. "But it doesn't look like we'll need to borrow his handcuffs."

We rose, and he took me in his arms. "Is it over?" I asked.

"Yes," he said, stroking my mane. "Thank God, it's over."

But it wasn't; of course not. I was beginning to believe it never would be; that we were doomed to bounce from one nasty surprise to another, trapped for eternity on the edge of freedom.

The voice that spoke from the darkness was unfortunately familiar, with an unpleasant sarcastic twang. "Please remain where you are. You are all under arrest."

We spun, to see six figures approaching out of the darkness, picking their way gingerly through the slime. A mixture of males and females, Sah'aaran all, they were clad in shiny dark-blue jumpsuits--and every one of them held a stinger. Their leader stepped forward, smiling broadly, and my claws expressed. "Hello, Commodore," she said. "Are you not dead?"

"Ehm'luruus," I spat, and from somewhere behind I heard Ehm'teel's low and dangerous growl. "What do you want?"

She shrugged casually. "What do any of us want, really?" she asked airily. Her voice hardened. "At the moment I will settle for answers." She waved her stinger. "For a structure that has been deserted for a century, this Undercity is far too active of late. After the Combined Forces concluded its operations, I had proximity sensors installed. Twice in the last few days they have sounded an alarm--but this time I was prepared. And what do I find? Four people who are supposed to be dead; two who have vanished mysteriously; one who was seen to leave the planet; and two I do not recognize at all. I want to know what is happening in my jurisdiction, Commodore--and none of us is leaving until I do."

I fixed her with my gaze. She was playing dominance games again, as she had that day in the hospital--and I possessed neither the strength nor the will. "We have no time for that," I told her. I pointed at the stretcher, over which Sah'raada and Ehm'teel were hovering anxiously. "Sah'larrah is dying; he needs medical attention immediately. Surely your answers can wait…"

She smirked. "I beg to differ," she sad. "As far as public perception is concerned, Dr. Sah'larrah is already dead; the facts may as well match. I have just witnessed this man--" she waved a hand at Sah'rajj-- "brutally attacked by your son. Would you care to explain that?"

"He had just assaulted my daughter," I began--and stopped. To answer her questions was to be pulled into her game. I was mortally tired: of the Undercity, of the cold and damp, of the dripping ooze--and most of all, of a certain pompous and self-important Chief of Police. "I have told you this before, Ehm'luruus," I went on coldly. "I am under no obligation to answer to you. My companions and I are leaving. You may either help us or hinder us--but if you choose the latter, you will have a fight on your hands."

She stared at me, scowling obstinately, and her five officers nervously fingered their stingers. Knowing Ehm'luruus, and her inability to back down, the situation might have gone downhill fast. But then--in a way that had become distressingly common of late--we were interrupted, by a steady, confident voice. "All right--let's all stand easy, shall we?"

I look around, and saw to my amazement that we were surrounded. There was a full two dozen of them, human, Sah'aaran, even a Centaurii or two. I saw the familiar body-armor and helmets, the stinger-rifles…and a predatory grin spread slowly across my face. We were in the midst of a full squad of CF Security, armed to the teeth and battle-ready.

The leader was a tall, square-jawed human male, with the stars of a commander affixed to his flak jacket. Shouldering his rifle, he stepped up before me and snapped a salute. "Commodore Ehm'ayla, I presume?"

"That's right," I said. "And you are--?"

"Commander Jason Gould, ma'am," he said respectfully. "We're responding to your emergency signal."

I frowned. What emergency signal? I reached up--but my commpak was gone, knocked loose when Sah'rajj barreled into me. It lay in the slime some meters away--and yes, the red light was flashing steadily. I'd been reaching for the "call" button--but the emergency beacon was not far distant. Accident? Or had the Goddess guided my fingers in that last terrible instant? No way to know.

I felt my knees begin to sag, and Joel's arm slipped unobtrusively around my waist, supporting me. "Now it's over," he murmured.

Gould coughed into his hand. "Er--do you have any orders for us, Commodore?"

I shook myself. Suddenly I was once again a CF flag officer, though severely out of uniform; the highest-ranking Sah'aaran on active duty. And suddenly too, I was in command of the situation, with a lot more than five stingers to back me up.

Swiftly I glanced around. Ehm'luruus and her small squad stood frozen, outnumbered and outgunned, gazing around nervously at the grim-faced troopers surrounding them. Sah'rajj still lay where we'd left him, silent and unmoving. Ehm'teel and Sah'raada were tending Sah'larrah, and the glance Ehm'teel shot me was one of quiet desperation. Tom sat cradling his sister in his arms; Sah'jinn had just finished winding a long strip of gauze around her leg. Soaking wet and covered with slime, both my kits were entirely naked: Tom had lost--or discarded--his one bit of clothing during the struggle. They were shivering, and Rae's teeth were clenched in pain. I wanted nothing more than to be there beside them, comforting them with my own body--but that would have to wait a while longer.

Taking a deep breath, I firmed myself. "Yes, Commander," I said. "I do. By my authority, the Undercity and its environs is hereby under martial law. Police Chief Ehm'luruus is relieved of her duties--and she is to be placed under arrest, on charges of malfeasance in office and obstructing justice."

"What?" Ehm'luruus exploded. She strode toward me, eyes blazing, only to be restrained by the barrel of Gould's rifle. "You are no authority…"

"On the contrary," I said mildly. Pulling away from Joel, I rose to my full height. I was disheveled, wet, crusted with slime, my Undercity outfit torn and soiled; no match for Ehm'luruus' immaculate fur and uniform. But nevertheless, she gave way before me. With a sweep of my arm, I indicated the troopers. "They are my authority," I told her. "You said it yourself, Ehm'luruus: my resources against yours. It looks like this is the day."

"I will see you court-martialed, Commodore," she hissed. "Do you hear me? Your career is finished!"

I gazed at her--and smiled. "Then perhaps we have something in common after all."

###

They were waiting for us, the three of them, as I knew they would be.

The hover-skim deposited Joel and me just outside Father's gate, and we had not proceeded very far up the path when they rushed out to meet us, pulling us from the dark and the drizzling rain into the welcome warmth of the entrance hall.

Mother swept us both into her embrace, dirt, slime and all. Her tears were flowing freely, and she made no attempt to check them. Sah'sell hugged me tightly and shook Joel's hand, his own eyes suspiciously moist and his voice too husky to wrap itself around Terran. And then there was my father. He tried, of course. fighting long and hard to maintain his aloof gruffness, as if I'd been kidnapped deliberately, solely to annoy him. But finally he too had to admit defeat and turn away--and that alone was worth the price of admission.

Almost two hours had passed since Commander Gould's arrival in the service tunnel, and afternoon had turned to evening. Though teetering on the brink of collapse, and desperately worried about my kits, somehow I'd managed to force myself to act like an officer: There was work to be done. Joel helped, as much as he could--but he lacked my authority, and served mostly to bolster my fatigue-dimmed memory.

We dispatched Sah'larrah and Sah'rajj to the hospital, aboard the fastest hover-skim available; Sah'jinn and Ehm'teel accompanied them. Another 'skim carried the twins to my father's home. They were cold, hungry and miserable, and while I would have preferred to succor them with my own hands, I would not force them to wait. My mother and Sah'sell would have to stand in until I could free myself. That was easy; but less so was the small matter of the Undercity's inhabitants. Presumably they were still in the midst of evacuating, wandering leaderless in the tunnels far below. More CF personnel would have to be dispatched, to locate them and round them up. The TB's might offer some resistance; but they were comparatively few. The rank-and-file, I felt, would welcome the troops with open arms. If not…well, CF Security had plenty of experience in subduing people with a minimum of fuss. Sah'raada remained behind with Gould, to help coordinate the effort; of all of us, he knew the Undercity best.

I made arrangements, I answered questions…and finally I bowed out, and ordered my husband and me taken home. I had no illusions: this was far from over. Very soon I'd be called upon to answer for my high-handed actions…but that could--and would--wait until I'd had some rest.

…And now, escaping as quickly and graciously as I could from my parents and brother, I made my way quickly down the hall. Tired as I was, I could not possibly have slept until I'd looked in on my kits.

I eased their doors open slowly and quietly, so as not to disturb them, peering through centimeter-wide gaps into their darkened rooms. In each case, the same scene greeted my grateful eyes. Both Tom and Rae were fast asleep, curled tight around themselves with the blankets pulled up beneath their chins. Their faces were relaxed, their breathing slow and deep. On their desks lay the remains of their dinners, the plates and cups all but licked clean.

As I closed my daughter's door, my legs let go, and I slid down the wall, my face buried in my hands. Dear Goddess, I thought, thank you. I don't know what I did to deserve it--but thank you.

They found me like that a few minutes later, Sah'sell and Joel, and my husband crouched down to take my hands, his face full of concern. "Darling--?"

I smiled. "I'm fine," I assured him. "Or will be."

"And the twins--?"

"They seem fine too," I said. "Sleeping like kittens."

"Thank God," Joel said. He and my brother lifted me to my feet. My legs were still shaky, and Joel had to hold me up, his arm around my waist.

"Dr. Sah'vuul departed just before you arrived," Sah'sell said. He quirked a grin. "He does not usually make house-calls--but Father persuaded him. Ehm'rael's wounds were long, but not deep; they will heal cleanly, though her leg will be stiff and sore for a few days. Apart from that, they were uninjured. Mother and I cleaned them, dried them, fed them--and put them to bed. They were asleep within minutes."

I clasped his hand. "Thank you, brother," I said. "Very much."

"You are quite welcome," he said with a smile. "Oh--the Security officers who delivered them were able to unlock Tom's handcuffs. But he and his sister are both still wearing those strange collars--I could find no way to remove them."

Joel nodded, glancing at my neck. "We'll work on those in the morning."

Sah'sell frowned. "They did request one thing," he said. "Something I did not recognize They indicated you would understand…"

"What was that?" I asked.

His frown deepened as he struggled to recall an unfamiliar Terran word. "They said they wanted…pizza."

Joel and I exchanged a glance, and burst out laughing. "I'll get it for them," Joel vowed, rubbing my shoulders. "I'll scour the Public Market--and if that doesn't work I'll make it myself, even if I have to cook the sauce and toss the dough."

"Don't forget the pepperoni," I told him.

He kissed me. "I won't. Or the anchovies either."


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