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 FIFTEEN


The next morning, Joel cut off my collar.

It might seem strange that I had not grown used to the thing: I had, after all, worn collars all my life, and it was neither strangling-tight nor so stiff that it hampered my movements. No, the physical discomfort was relatively minor--but the emotional, that was something else again. I was more than ready to be rid of the thing.

By the time I finally woke, after a long, corpse-like and comfortable sleep, the morning was well-advanced, the sun riding high in a cloudless, deep-blue sky. I found myself alone, sprawled across the wide bed, the arms that had enfolded me all night gone. That alarmed me--but Joel was not difficult to find: he was no farther than our living room, sitting at the table with a covered tray across from him and a cup of coffee in his hands. My stomach was a black hole, a bottomless pit, a hypertunnel to oblivion; but even so I took a moment to enjoy the hedonistic pleasure of slipping into a soft, comfortable, finely-woven day-robe before I joined my mate. My Undercity clothing was long gone, down the disposal chute.

The remainder of the previous evening blurred together in my memory, which is understandable. It included a sonic shower, I recalled, and a slab of well-seasoned maxigrazer--but immediately thereafter I must have collapsed. My last dim memory was of Joel slipping me into bed. Seldom before had I been so exhausted; and never before had a real bed felt so good.

As I left the bedroom, Joel rose quickly, setting aside his cup. He looked much better that morning, the dark circles having vanished from beneath his eyes. A certain quantity of anxiety still furrowed his brow--and well it might: any number of loose ends had yet to be tied up. He had exchanged his black Ninja outfit for more conventional slacks and a pullover. He embraced me, and to my distress, I saw his eyes fill with tears. "Joel…" I began, and he nodded.

"I know," he said quietly. "But you have no idea what it means to me to have you back."

I smiled and brushed his cheek. "Oh yes I do," I said. "Believe me."

He kissed me. "Sit," he said, indicating the tray. "Eat."

I did--and never had anything tasted as good as that big stack of peppered kidneys. Some time later I swallowed and said, "Where are the kits?"

"Still eating, probably," Joel said. "Your mother and I took their breakfasts to them a little while ago. You should have seen Rae attack hers." He shook his head. "I never imagined she'd do anything as drastic as starve herself…"

"Neither did I," I said. "And short of force-feeding her, I had no idea what to do about it."

He shuddered, and I patted his hand. "That's over and done with," I said. "She'll be back to normal in no time."

He nodded. "I believe you're right." He leaned back and sipped his coffee. "Now," he went on briskly, "before the rest of our problems come home to roost, what say I round up some tools and get rid of that fashion accessory of yours?"

"If you do," I told him, "I'll be your devoted love-slave forever."

Rising, he kissed my forehead. "I should get that in writing," he said. "I'll be back."

Unfortunately, though, that task turned out to be a bigger job than either of us had bargained for. That thick black polymer proved to be incredibly tough--and worse, it was slick; tools skidded harmlessly across its surface. Even a set of massive bolt-cutters was of no use. I'd grown somewhat panicky, and was contemplating a lifetime wearing a thick ugly collar (Sah'rajj's revenge, that would have been) when my brother stopped by.

"I may have an idea," Sah'sell said, peering in turn at the unscathed collar, the pile of rejected tools, and Joel's sweaty, scowling face. "My mate's hobby is sculpture; in her studio there are a number of small power tools…"

Instantly my husband tossed aside the useless bolt-cutters. "Let's go."

He returned some minutes later with a small high-speed rotary device. Into its chuck could be clamped a number of different bits: drills, wire brushes, routers…or, in this case, a tiny diamond-edged grinding wheel.

It was not the perfect tool for the job. To begin with, it was shaped for Sah'aaran hands, rather than human. The wheel slipped and slid before it bit in, threatening to gouge my neck; and the motor produced an irritating vibration, making my teeth feel as if they were disintegrating. But it did work, eventually, after some ten minutes of steady grinding--during which a spot on my neck grew uncomfortably warm. Finally, having cut as deep as he dared, Joel set aside the grinder and sought a smaller pair of clippers from the discard pile. This time they had only a fraction of a millimeter to clip through; the collar parted easily, and Joel stripped it carefully away. It took some fur with it.

The first thing I did was to scratch my neck, which had suddenly begun to itch intolerably--and the second was to lick my mate's cheek. "Thank you," I said. "I can't tell you how good that feels."

He grinned. "You're welcome." He glanced at the collar. "You were right, Ayla," he commented. pointing at the severed ends. I looked--and saw the gleaming copper of many sliced wires. The thing had indeed been packed with electronics.

"I'm just glad it's gone," I said

He ruffled the fur on my neck. "Knowing you," he said, "you'll probably run to the bedroom for one of your own."

I was indeed tempted--but finally I shook my head. "No," I said. "For once in my life I feel like being indecent."

He kissed my throat. "Let's hear it for indecency." He sighed. "I've got two more to do, if I can find the twins."

In response I pointed to the window. Outside it was a glorious second-summer day. The clouds had departed, leaving land and sky washed clean, literally glowing in the sunshine. In the middle of the still-soggy garden, our kits were playing catch. Tom had donned shorts and a T-shirt; Rae wore a shiny, one-piece, short-sleeved and short-legged garment that should have been tight-fitting, but instead hung loose. Once again Tom crouched on his haunches, an old catcher's mitt held before him; but Rae's claw-ball was pitifully slow, and lacked its distinctive wicked break. It would be some time before her arm was back in shape.

Joel shook his head in wonder. "How can they be so nonchalant, after what they've been through?"

"I don't know," I said. "But we'd better be glad they can."

###

Time to face the music--but it wasn't quite the tune I'd been expecting.

The twins came running, dropping their baseball and gloves, when Joel called them in. Or, more accurately, Tom did. In Ehm'rael's case it was more of a rapid limp, and when I saw the four long, wide strips of dermapatch on her right thigh, guilt and anger reached up to seize me by the throat. The guilt I kept for my very own--I should have cared for her myself, rather than leaving the job to others--but a portion of the anger I forwarded to Sah'rajj. Every Sah'aaran born is taught from birth the awesome responsibility of bearing claws; even a monomaniacal whitefur should have received those lessons. What kind of monster had he become, to brutally slash an innocent girl?

…A question which, of course, answered itself. In those last few minutes he had been a monster, an animal, devoid of any vestige of civilization. Whether he'd been driven to it by grief, or by a bad hyperjump, I still didn't know--nor did I care. It was enough that he would trouble us no more.

I embraced my kits, and nuzzled their cheeks, which Tom permitted without squirming, and then I held them at arm's length for a closer look.

Amazing, the difference that just one night had wrought; a testament to the recuperative powers of youth. Physically they were essentially undamaged, except for Rae's torn leg; Tom had survived his fight with Sah'rajj without a scratch, and Rae's stiff collar had prevented the madman from strangling her. They were wide-awake and alert, in distinct contrast to my poor self--and best of all, the spark of life had returned to Ehm'rael's eyes, entirely supplanting the dull apathy that so frightened me. This was my daughter; not the hollow-eyed, hopeless creature who'd answered to her name these past few weeks. She had a long way to go, to regain her strength and stamina--but I had no doubt now that she would. And if there was something in her eyes, a touch of sadness in unguarded moments…well, that was to be expected. "How is your leg, honey?" I asked.

She touched the dermapatches, and winced. "Sore," she said. "But getting better." She shuddered. "Do you know--Dr. Sah'vuul extracted the tips of Sah'rajj's claws from the wounds."

Weak claws too, I thought. No wonder our ancestors despised albinos.

Tom turned to Joel. "You wanted to see us, Dad?"

"Yes," Joel said. He hefted the grinder. "I wanted to know if you'd be interested in getting rid of those collars."

The two of them looked quickly at me, their eyes widening, having finally realized that my neck was bare and my collar lay broken on the table. "Something wrong?" I asked mildly.

"No," Tom said. He swallowed and touched his throat. "It's just--well, we didn't think these collars could come off. We were getting used to the idea of wearing them the rest of our lives."

"Not with me around," Joel said blandly, "That is, unless you want to keep them."

They exchanged a panicked glance, and Tom shook his head emphatically. "Believe me, Dad," he said quickly, "we're ready to get rid of them."

Joel grinned. "I thought as much. All right, who's first?"

Tom stepped back. "Go ahead, Sis," he said. "You've been wearing yours longer than I have mine."

She smiled and hauled herself onto the edge of the table. Brushing aside what there was of her mane, Joel switched on the grinder. "Hold still, please. This might tickle a bit."

He went to work, Rae gripping the edge of the table and Tom looking on with keen interest. As the minutes ticked by, and the little black flecks multiplied on Rae's shoulder and drifted to the floor, I found my eyes drawn repeatedly to her brother. Certainly he had not come through our experience unchanged--no one could--but his reactions would be more subtle, harder to pin down. A touch more maturity, perhaps; a greater tendency to look before he leapt. One thing for certain: imprisonment had brought my kits closer together than ever before. I saw it in their gestures, and in the looks they exchanged, tender and meaningful; and heard it in their words. Sah'aaran twins are connected, I'd once told Rae; now they--and I--truly understood what I'd meant. Even their bondings would not change that.

Bondings… that word brought me out of my reveries with a jolt, and I grasped my son's arm. "Tom," I said, "I just remembered. We need to send a message to Ehm'tassaa…"

He smiled. "Already taken care of," he said. "Last night. Uncle Sah'sell helped me. We sent a text-gram; he said that would be the fastest." His face fell. "No reply, yet."

I patted his shoulder. "It will come," I assured him. "Even hyperzaps take time."

Actually, technically, a text-gram would not have been much faster than video. Sah'sell was just being his usual diplomatic self, sparing Ehm'tassaa the sight of Tom's new hairstyle. The shock of learning that her bond-mate was still alive would be considerable; the other might literally be too much.

"I suppose," he said miserably. He looked at me with haunted eyes. "Do you…do you think Tass is okay, Mom? I've heard what can happen when someone's bond-mate dies…"

"I think she is," I said, hugging him. "She's a strong-willed young woman, and your 'death' was never really proved. She didn't strike me as the type to give up hope easily."

"I hope you're right."

At that moment the grinder shut off, and Joel, groping for the clippers, cut through the final threads of black plastic. As he peeled away the collar--pulling out a few strands of fur, careful though he was--she gasped; then she threw her arms around him and nuzzled his cheek. "Thank you, Daddy."

He grinned. "That makes all the hard work worthwhile." Reaching up to stroke her mane, he paused and glanced at me. "I hate to say this," he went on, "but you ladies had better not even think about getting a haircut for at least a year."

"What about me?" Tom asked, running a hand over his scalp.

"Better make that two," Joel told him. "Have a seat--you're next."

Some time later--as we sat talking, together as a family for the first time in almost a month--the visiphone rang. I rose to answer it, a lump already forming in my stomach. Nor were my premonitions of doom incorrect. A CF Navy ensign peered out of the screen at me: Sah'aaran, and trying hard to keep her scandalized gaze from straying to my bare neck. "Commodore Ehm'ayla?"

"That's right," I said. "What can I do for you?"

She looked simultaneously apologetic and uncertain; probably she'd been briefed about my legendary temper. "Ma'am, I'm calling on behalf of Admiral Rogers. You, Mr. Abrams, and your kits are requested to report to the Government Building, first floor meeting room B, no later than thirteen hundred hours."

I glanced quickly at the wall chrono, and saw that it was a little past eleven-thirty. Goddess, I did sleep late! But then her words finally penetrated, and I frowned. "The Government Building, Ensign?" I asked. "Not CF Headquarters?"

"No, ma'am," she said. "The Admiral's message was quite explicit."

"And my entire family?"

"Yes, Commodore."

"Understood, Ensign," I said. "Please relay my compliments to Admiral Rogers, and inform her we will be there."

"Yes, Commodore."

Joel rose and draped an arm around my shoulders. "What's up?"

"Trouble," I said. "Maybe. We've been 'invited' to a meeting."

His eyebrows rose. "A Board of Inquiry?"

"Maybe so," I said. "But a strange place to hold it." I sighed. "I thought we'd have a day at least to prepare…"

"CF justice works fast," he said flatly. "Believe me, I know." He turned. "Better go get dressed," he told the twins. "We're going downtown."

###

Standing before the full-length mirror, I frowned and turned a slow circle, tugging irritably at the lapels of my uniform. Behind me, shrugging into a dark-blue jacket, Joel smiled. "A little nervous are we, darling?" he asked.

I growled. "If I were you I wouldn't get too cocky, dear," I said. I might have added, "You could end up back in jail"--but the twins were waiting for us in the living room, and they might have taken me seriously. The possibility did exist, though, if Admiral Rogers was sufficiently peeved. We might all end up sharing a cell.

And yes, I was nervous--for which I think I can be forgiven. I had no idea what was about to happen to me--apart from the obvious: a politely-worded demand that I explain what the hell I'd thought I was doing. I gazed ruefully at those new rank stars, still bright and shiny on my breast. I might soon be kissing them goodbye. Would they bust me back to commander, or kick me out of the CF entirely? I'd always said I was too young to retire, but…

And on top of everything else, I was extremely uncomfortable. It had been weeks since I'd last worn my uniform; the longest time I'd spent in civvies since my maternity leave. After three weeks in a brief Undercity costume, that full-length jumpsuit felt strange, even confining--and itched intolerably. My body was a chiaroscuro of aches and pains: my legs; my side where Sah'rajj slammed into me; my arms from helping tote Sah'larrah's stretcher. Yes, this would indeed be a jolly meeting…

The twins were at least well-dressed for the occasion. Tom wore trousers and a white long-sleeved shirt, and his jacket was draped over his arm. Like me, he seemed to be experiencing some discomfort. Seated beside him, her injured leg extended awkwardly, Rae had donned a dark-brown day-robe, which hung on her emaciated form like a tent. She'd filled the long-empty holes in her ear with wire-thin gold loops. A little to my surprise, they were both wearing collars. Tom's I recognized instantly, as the one given to him by Ehm'tassaa. Rae's, an eye-catching creation of crinkled red-and-bronze metallic foil, was unfamiliar--but looked expensive.

She caught me staring, and smiled shyly. "Sah'larssh bought it for me," she said, confirming my suspicions. "The day before everything went wrong."

Sah'larssh. In my concern for Tom and Ehm'tassaa, I had completely forgotten my daughter's bond-mate. "I'm sorry, honey," I said. "We should have given you time to see him…"

"That's all right," she said quickly. "Family comes first. He knows I'm alive and well--Uncle Sah'sell took care of that. I'll see him later."

I nodded. "All right." I smiled. "And the collar is very attractive."

"Thank you." She paused, and went on uncertainly, "Mother…will Tom and I have to…to testify?"

"Very likely yes," I told her. "We all will. Like it or not, you and your brother are material witnesses."

"What…what should we tell them?"

"The truth," I said simply. Even if it ends your mother's career…

###

The journey downtown was fairly brief--for some of us, entirely too brief. The twins rode with their noses plastered against the shuttle's window, drinking in the scenery as avidly as they had when we first arrived on Sah'aar. Their renewed fascination was easy enough to understand--and not only because they'd spent so long underground. Second-summer on Sah'salaan Continent is always breathtakingly beautiful; this year's, especially so. The heavy rains had brought the savanna back to life. Dry gullies had become splashing rivulets; the brown dead grass had been beaten down, replaced by fresh grey-green shoots; and every swale held a carpet of flowers. Red, blue, orange, gold…every color imaginable, and then some, the blossoms nodding and dancing on the fresh northeast breeze. Even the dark, stoic Tatak seemed rejuvenated. It was as if nature itself celebrated our freedom.

We walked the short distance from the Transit Nexus to the Government Building, slowly, because of Rae's sore leg; and distracted though I was, I couldn't help but feel cheered. That old city seemed brand-new, the dust of first-summer gone, the air flower-scented and just the right side of warm. No wonder second-summer had always been my favorite season. To experience it now, to feel the breeze against my face, was enough to make my cares melt away, a little at least, and my poor battered body suddenly felt decades younger.

Had I the been able, I would have lingered, shopping or merely wandering--but I was glad enough to make our walk brief, for Tom's sake. My son's choice of clothing already made him a marked man on Sah'aar, subject to endless stares and whispers; and with that bizarre haircut added to the mix…as we walked I saw him shrink into himself in an agony of self-consciousness. Unfortunately, it would be no better on Terra: as with many things, only time would cure.

We entered the Government Building through the main entrance, facing Alliance Plaza, climbing the broad flight of marble steps amidst a crowd of legislators, diplomats, lobbyists and other high-ranking parasites. Just inside the huge mirrored doors, my kits came to a sudden halt, gazing around in amazement. "Wow!" Tom whispered.

The place was impressive, I had to admit--in an ostentatious way, The lobby was huge, a full five stories high, with planter-hung balconies on each level and a massive crystal chandelier at its peak. Floor and walls were smooth, polished stone, blood-red with veins of white; the door-handles and railings were gleaming gold. Richly-upholstered couches and chairs were scattered about, many of them clustered around the inevitable fountains. An endless stream of business-robed Sah'aarans, and other species as well, moved between the doors and the waiting banks of elevators along the back wall. As always, the lobby was pin-drop quiet, apart from the soft shuffling of feet and the quiet purr of conversation.

Joel glanced around. "Very nice," he observed. "The last time I was here, I came in through the holding cells in the basement."

And you might be going back, I refrained from saying.

We were expected, it seemed. Just as I was looking around for a map to guide us, a young human rose from the shadow of a huge potted plant and stepped briskly toward us. Tall, dark-haired and blue-eyed, he wore a brown Ops uniform and a broad smile. He bowed crisply. "Commodore Ehm'ayla? I'm Lieutenant Commander Cox, Admiral Rogers' aide. Follow me, please."

He began to lead us briskly through a maze of corridors, lined with carved Tatak doors, but we had gone only a few steps before I caught hold of his arm, bringing him to a halt. "Commander," I said, "can you tell me what's going on? Is this a Board of Inquiry?"

He hesitated, then said, "In a manner of speaking, yes." He flashed a smile. "Though officially, nothing quite so formal. Call it an…investigation."

"Why here, and not CF Headquarters?"

"Admiral Rogers believes this to be largely a civilian matter," Cox said. "To be honest, the Combined Forces is involved solely because of you. The admiral has decided to conduct a joint hearing, with she and Mayor Sah'chass presiding."

I nodded slowly. That made sense, I had to admit; in many ways this did involve the Sah'salaan civic authorities more than the Admiralty. But it also meant I would have not one, but two, testy officials firing questions at me. I could hardly wait.

Cox led us down a wide, short corridor, at the end of which stood a pair of closed doors. The walls were lined with long, red-upholstered benches. He bowed and waved a hand. "Please be seated," he said. "You will be called for shortly." And then, before I could question him further, he vanished through the doors.

Joel grinned and settled down on the right-hand bench, draping his arms around the twins' shoulders. "Hurry up and wait," he commented wryly. "That's the military for you."

I sank down beside Tom. For the end of my career, I thought, I'm in no particular hurry.

The voice that spoke into my ear was soft and gentle, but slightly rough at the edges. "Hello, my child."

I looked up sharply--and then I stood. "Admiral!" I said in delight.

It had been many years since I'd last seen Admiral Ehm'rael in uniform; and even at her age she wore it well. She stood smiling at me, erect, but hanging on tightly to her carved walking-stick. "It is good to see you," she said, to all of us. "I have feared much for your safety."

She was not alone, I saw. Beside her, firm as always on his gleaming prosthetics, stood her mate. A respectful few steps behind them was another, larger figure. I had only enough time for a glimpse of dark-blue day-robe and a whiff of a half-remembered scent before Rae, with a cry that reverberated up and down the corridor, leaped to her feet. They met halfway, and Sah'larssh's arms closed tight around her. He licked her cheek, and she licked his--and if any doubt remained, that dispelled it. Indeed, they were bonded. Beside me Joel frowned and glanced away, but remained silent.

Admiral Ehm'rael smiled and winked. "If only all our troubles could be solved so easily." She seated herself then--and unassisted too. Meanwhile, Rae and Sah'larssh sat down at the far end of the bench, their hands clasped together, speaking in low tones. Sah'larssh too looked rather thin and wan, and seeing that, I recalled what Joel had told me: that the news of Rae's "death" had sent the young man to the hospital.

I laid my hand on Admiral Ehm'rael's arm. "I owe you a debt of gratitude I can never repay," I told her. "Without your assistance, Joel would never have found us."

She waved that off with a smile. "I could do no less, my child. And not only for you, but for Ehm'teel and Sah'raada as well."

"Have you been called to testify too, Admiral?" Joel asked. He kept glancing at his daughter and her bond-mate, and every time he did his scowl deepened. He and I would have to talk--but that too would have to wait.

"I have," the admiral confirmed. She smiled wryly. "Admiral Rogers and the mayor have been dealing with the witnesses piecemeal, evidently to determine whether our stories agree. I hope we shall be called shortly."

I sighed. "I suppose I do too," I said. "Admiral, do you know--"

I was interrupted, by a hand on my shoulder and a familiar, friendly voice. "Hello, Ehm'ayla."

I looked up, to see a young male standing smiling at me. He wore a brown day-robe, quite plain and too big for him, and an elaborately-beaded collar--and if not for his cropped mane and broad toothy smile, I would not have recognized him. "Sah'jinn!"

"In the flesh," he said. His smile fell then, and I saw, to my concern, that he was on the verge of exhaustion, his whiskers drooping, his eyes puffy and dark-rimmed. "What is left of me, that is." He glanced curiously at my companions. "I have not had the pleasure…"

"Excuse me," I said. "Dr. Sah'jinn, this is Admiral Ehm'rael and her mate…"

"The infamous Sah'majha," Sah'jinn said with a grin. He bowed. "I am very pleased to meet you both."

"The doctor was very helpful to us," I explained. "Before and during our escape."

Ehm'rael nodded. "And you arranged for young Sah'raada to recover his memories, so I understand. Without which the situation would have been incalculably worse."

He shrugged. "I may have played some small part," he said modestly. "May I be seated?"

I scooted over, and he settled in between the admiral and me. "You are here to testify as well?" I asked.

He stifled a yawn. "Yes," he confirmed. "Though I wish it could have been later. I have had no more than three hours' sleep in the past two days."

"You found time to have your collar removed," I observed with a smile.

He nodded. "Indeed. Not an easy job--as you and your kits have obviously discovered." He raised his arms. "I borrowed this outfit from our friend Sah'raada; I have had no chance to go shopping."

I paused, taking a deep breath, and finally plunged ahead: "How…how is Sah'larrah?"

He frowned quizzically, and I shook my head. "No," I said, in response to his unspoken question. "I have not yet contacted the hospital."

"I understand," he said softly. He took a deep breath. "He is alive. I participated in his surgery--and if you will forgive me for saying so, it was the most exciting experience of my life. It was extremely difficult and chancy; Sah'larrah had indeed neglected his heart problems far too long. His heart had actually stopped by the time we arrived at the hospital; fortunately the operating room was ready. Even so, it was a near thing, and several times we came close to losing him."

"And?" I persisted.

"And…it appears he shall live," Sah'jinn said. "The artificial heart is operating within tolerances. His recovery will be longer and more difficult than it might otherwise have been, though." He shook his head. "In four years of medical school I never encountered a heart that badly damaged--in a living patient."

A huge wave of relief surged through me. "Thank the Goddess," I said. "I truly feared our hard work would be for nothing."

He cocked a curious eye. "I am confused," he said. "Sah'larrah has done you and your family much harm, has he not?"

Tom and Joel were gazing intently at me, no doubt wondering what I would say. From the looks on their faces, their answer would have been a resounding "yes!" I nodded. "He has," I agreed. "But he has done me much good as well." I laid a hand on my son's shoulder. "His recent actions don't--can't--entirely cancel that. And…I truly believe he couldn't help himself. Neither of us can imagine what it would be like to be sixty years old and unmated, Sah'jinn. For me it was bad enough at thirty-two."

He looked away, his ears turning red. "I hope I will not have to find out," he said softly. "But…in his own way he did care for you, and your kits. He may have believed he was saving you from yourselves."

"Always a dangerous endeavor," I said dryly. I paused. "What of Sah'rajj?"

Sah'jinn shook his head sadly. "He is alive as well--if we may call it that. Your surmise was correct: he was indeed the victim of an aborted hyperjump. His body is essentially intact, but his brain and nervous system were badly damaged." With a glance at my son and mate, he went on, "During his struggle with Thomas, he suffered a…'stroke,' might be the best term. The damage is irreversible; his higher neural functions are gone. His body may continue to function for some time, but he will never again speak. 'Brain-dead' is the common term."

Tom's eyes narrowed, and his whiskers bristled; clearly he felt Sah'rajj had gotten exactly what he deserved. An opinion I found difficult to refute. But Joel turned away, pain in his eyes. "I am sorry," he said softly. "I never meant for that to happen."

"There is no guilt you need feel," Sah'jinn assured him. "Had they escaped unharmed, he and Ehm'maana would have done everything in their power to prevent your escape--even killing you, if need be. I knew them better than you, Mr. Abrams. They were facing the end of their Undercity…and that, they could not endure."

"And that's not all," I said. Once again Sah'jinn gazed at me in perplexity, and I explained. "That afternoon in your work-room," I said. "When you used the sterilizer to mask the transmission from our collars. You told me Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana were planning acts of terrorism…"

"Oh," he said, "that."

"What's this?" Joel asked, frowning. "Sah'raada never mentioned anything like that to me…"

"Nor to me," Admiral Ehm'rael put in, and Sah'majha shook his head.

Sah'jinn looked away, coughing into his hand. "As it happens," he said quietly, "what I told you may not have been strictly true."

My claws expressed, and my tail thumped the wall. "You mean you lied to me?" I demanded, half-rising.

"'Lie' is too strong a word," he said, with a sheepish grin. "'Exaggerate' might be better. Though I truly believe it would have occurred to them eventually…"

"You lied," I corrected sharply. "And I want to know why."

He raised his hands, clasped together in supplication. "I was desperate for your help," he said pleadingly. "We were trapped, without a hope--until you arrived. I thought perhaps if you had something tangible to fight for, other than your own freedom…"

Ally or no, I might have murdered him--but he was spared by the arrival of Commander Cox. Smiling, he beckoned to us. "You may enter now."

We did. Admiral Ehm'rael's nanotech-repaired lungs must have improved significantly during my sojourn underground: she rose without help, and walked with only a minor assist from her stick, though Sah'majha's protective hand hovered near her elbow. The rest of us trailed behind, Rae and Sah'larssh all but glued together. We might have trouble prying them apart when it came her turn to testify.

We entered what proved to be an auditorium, and reasonably attractive too. The walls were paneled in Tatak, bleached a brownish grey, the floor was carpeted in restful tan, and the ceiling was covered with glow-panels. The fifty seats were arranged in curved tiers, stair-stepping down to a raised platform at the head of the room. In the aisle before the platform, a lectern had been placed, in lieu of the infamous Hot Seat in a CF court-martial. On the stage stood two rows of tables. At the rear--and larger--sat a dozen aides and functionaries; on the right members of the Combined forces, a mixed group of humans and Centaurii; on the left, Sah'salaan District government officials, Sah'aarans all. But it was the occupants of the front row who caught my eye and held it.

On the right sat a human woman in her early-forties. Her skin was dark--much more so than the Tatak tabletop before her--and her long black hair was coiled in an elaborate set of intertwined braids atop her head. Her expression, as she peered down at me, might best be described as "implacable." Her uniform was dark blue; unlike Admiral Ehm'rael and me, she had come up through the Patrol. I knew her only by reputation--but that was enough. Almost by definition she was a force to be reckoned with: you don't make admiral (and Sector CO) at her age on good looks alone.

The individual to her left was as different as he could possibly be. Sah'aaran, and male, he was in mid-sixties; his mane and muzzle were entirely grey, but his hands, resting on the table before him, were still dark. He wore a day-robe of rich, shimmering fabric, red and gold, and a gold collar. Symbols of his office--but one thing spoiled their grandeur. Mayor Sah'chass was that most unusual of creatures: a corpulent Sah'aaran. His cheeks were puffy, his chins--several of them--spilled onto his chest, and his great round belly rested on the edge of the table. He looked uncomfortable, and not just physically, as he waited for my companions and me to take our seats.

As we did, I glanced around quickly. Of the few others present, only some wore friendly faces. Ehm'teel and Sah'raada, for example: they sat close together in the third row. Ehm'teel looked upset, and her brother's arm was draped comfortingly around her shoulders. Noticing that, I wondered darkly which of our inquisitors had raked her over the coals. Catching sight of us, they smiled and nodded, but didn't dare wave.

In the far corner, I was surprised to see Ehm'herra and Ehm'kall. Sah'larrah's mother and sister still wore mourning-grey, though the rumors of his death had proved greatly exaggerated. As she saw me, Ehm'herra turned away, her expression blank. Ehm'kall attempted to hold my gaze, defiantly, but failed, and she too glanced aside, her nose and ears crimson. There were a few things I might have said to them--but for Sah'larrah's sake I would refrain.

In the opposite corner sat Ehm'luruus. I felt a brief surge of panic as my eyes fell upon her, thinking that she was once again at liberty and in authority; but then I saw that she'd traded her flashy uniform for the plain green jumpsuit worn by guests of CF Security. She sat slumped and sullen, surrounded on all sides by attentive guards. As she saw me her head jerked around, and her eyes locked with mine. Her expression reminded me of an old Terran saying: "if looks could kill…" I returned her stare serenely, giving her no satisfaction.

As soon as we were seated, Admiral Rogers and Mayor Sah'chass returned their attention to the man at the lectern. A human male, he wore the black duty uniform of CF Security, and had a wide, pleasant face topped with close-cropped sandy hair. I didn't recognize him--until he started to speak, and I heard the familiar, deceptively-mild tones of our savior, Commander Gould.

"After Commodore Ehm'ayla and her party had been evacuated, I sent my squad to the coordinates indicated by Ehm'teel. They found a well-camouflaged entrance to the service tunnels, and began their descent. They had gone no more than five kilometers, by their estimate, when they met the vanguard of the Undercity residents. The others were strung out behind, in a number of small- to medium-sized groups. In all there were three hundred and eleven, approximately one-half juveniles."

"Was there any resistance, Commander?" Rogers asked. "I am informed that there were armed guards among them…"

"No resistance at all, Admiral," Gould said. He grinned. "Some were indeed armed--but not the guards. Evidently they were relieved of their weapons early in the migration. Those who held the stingers turned them over willingly. They seemed glad to see my men, and when Commodore Ehm'ayla's name was mentioned, they surrendered immediately."

"Where are they now?" Mayor Sah'chass asked.

"They are housed in an empty hangar at CF Headquarters," Gould told him. "They have been provided with food, bedding, clothing and other necessities. Some of them, those who were pointed out to us as the most loyal followers of Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana, have been taken into custody--for their own safety."

Curiously, I found myself wishing those former TB's well. I remembered the pair Ehm'teel and I had eavesdropped on. The female had been quite obviously pregnant, and being a mother myself, I'd felt strangely drawn to her, though I didn't even know her name. And listening to their words, I'd gained the clear impression that their faith in their leaders had been badly shaken, if not broken entirely. I could only assume most of the others would feel the same.

"Some of your people are still in the Undercity, Commander?" Rogers asked.

"Yes, Admiral," he replied. "Twenty of my troopers. They have found no stragglers--but just before I arrived here, I was informed they have located what they believe to be the remains of the co-leader, Ehm'maana."

"'Remains'?" Sah'chass said, in a voice as thick as his body.

"Yes, Mr. Mayor," Gould said. "She was the victim of an accident involving a hypertunnel--unlikely as that would seem on a planet's surface. Genetic testing will be required to identify what was found; but my men are reasonably certain it is--was--her."

Joel winced, and I covered his hand with mine. It was not your fault, my darling.

"Very good, Commander," Rogers said. "For the time being we will continue to house the evacuees, until it can be determined what to do with them. You are excused."

He saluted and departed, and on the way out he glanced at me. I couldn't decide what sort of expression he wore. Pity, perhaps? Did he know what was in store for me?

I had no time to dwell on that, though, because the admiral was speaking again. "We have heard enough to conclude that the structure known as the Undercity has been partially reconstructed and repopulated," she said. "How this was accomplished under the very noses of the Sah'salaan District government is beyond the scope of this inquiry--but is surely a matter for further investigation."

Sah'chass shot her a brief, venomous look, his chins quivering. There was no love lost between them, it seemed; in fact they could barely tolerate each other's presence. At least they'd be unlikely to gang up on me.

"My sole interest," Rogers went on, "is to learn how CF officers and resources became involved. Now that the rest of our witnesses are here, we may begin to determine that."

I steeled myself, gripping the arms of my chair, ready to rise--but to my surprise, she did not call my name. In fact, as it turned out, I was the last to testify--almost. Why, I don't know; perhaps Rogers simply wanted to see me sweat--metaphorically speaking, of course. But whatever the reason, she called Admiral Ehm'rael first.

My friend and mentor made no move to rise, or to step up to the lectern; nor did Rogers attempt to force her. Seated where she was, grasping her stick firmly, Ehm'rael told her story.

I no longer recall everything she said; suffice it to say she spoke for about half an hour, in a calm, steady voice, reporting in exquisite detail exactly how she and her mate aided my husband and his fellow commandos. Much of it I'd learned from Joel during our march yesterday (only yesterday?); but some was new to me--and to him too, perhaps. Listening, I gradually became aware of the enormity of what Ehm'rael had done. She'd pulled every string, called in every favor she'd accumulated during her long life, to equip Joel and his companions, to gain access to CF radar satellites…and most especially, to hide their activities from Ehm'luruus. She spoke emotionlessly, as if describing the details of some ship or station she had designed; but I knew her, and could hear the undercurrents to her flat tones. On the one hand, amusement: it always tickled her to beat the bureaucrats at their own game. But on the other hand, terrible anger. The CF--personified by Rogers--had given up on me and my kits, uncritically accepting the manufactured evidence of our deaths. And that, she could not forgive.

It was a visibly-shaken Admiral Rogers who finally dismissed Ehm'rael, without asking a single question. Nor did Mayor Sah'chass attempt to cross-examine. They both knew, I think, the extent to which Ehm'rael outclassed them. Rogers took a moment to regain her composure--then called my daughter to the stand.

With a last, lingering look into her bond-mate's eyes, Rae uncoiled her tail from his and limped to the lectern. She was nervous, hiding her claws behind her back, and seeing that, my heart went out to her. Superior officer and public official or not, if either of them was mean to her…but fortunately for all of us, they were not. Rogers was in fact quite kind: she smiled at Rae, inquired about her injury, apologized for the trouble--and then allowed my daughter to tell her tale at her own pace. Rae spoke quietly at first, and we had to strain to hear; but she was a natural storyteller, and gradually began to warm up. She faltered only once, as she described the fight with Sah'rajj; and seeing her obvious discomfort, Rogers quickly dismissed her. Once again she asked no questions. Rae sat back down, between her father and her bond-mate, and Joel leaned over quickly to kiss her cheek. "You did fine, sweetie."

Then it was Tom's turn. My son lacked something of his sister's narrative sense--he rambled, and had to be guided with questions--but he definitely had his father's ability to work the crowd. To hear him talk, you would have believed his time underground to have been a nonstop swashbuckling adventure--and that he'd single-handedly rescued Rae from the proverbial "fate worse than death." Before he finished, Admiral Rogers was actually chuckling. Not so Sah'chass: he seemed increasingly glum, and sat silent, his arms crossed over his paunch and his tail flicking. Excused at last, Tom sat down next to me, and whispered into my ear, "How'd I do?"

"Have you ever considered a career in threevee?" I asked dryly.

And then they called Joel. I might have expected my mate to emulate his son's flamboyant performance--but he did not. His demeanor was much like Admiral Ehm'rael's: quiet, matter-of-fact, almost emotionless. He described the disappearances of his wife and children, his arrest and eventual release--and finally his expedition in search of us. And like my mentor, he omitted no detail.

When he had finished, Sah'chass finally spoke up. "Mr. Abrams," he said, "from what I have heard, it is clear that you and your companions Ehm'teel and Sah'raada--" he glanced quickly at Admiral Ehm'rael, evidently debating the wisdom of including her in that group, and deciding against it-- "conspired to circumvent the law."

"That is correct, Mr. Mayor," Joel said calmly.

"What I would like to know," the mayor went on, "is why? Have you no respect for the law, Mr. Abrams?"

Joel's tones sharpened. "First of all," he said, "I would like to say, for the record, that I find that question quite offensive. In fact I have a great deal of respect for the law--both that of the Alliance and that of whatever planet I happen to be visiting. But any body of law is worth only as much as those who are sworn to uphold it. Here in Sah'salaan District, the law is represented by that person--" he indicated Ehm'luruus with a jerk of his thumb-- "and for her, I have no respect whatsoever. She has earned none."

"I do not understand--" Sah'chass began, but Joel interrupted.

"Oh yes, you do," he said. "Unless you're entirely deaf to the opinions of your own constituents. But, I'll spell it out nonetheless. Your Chief of Police has been used by the leaders of the Undercity, since the day she took office. They have an agent in her department--it would be a good idea to discover who it is--and her security has been utterly compromised. Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana played off her enmity for Dr. Sah'larrah, and her enormous ego, which renders her incapable of admitting mistakes. They orchestrated my arrest, to give them a chance to snatch my son. Clearly, my friends and I could expect no aid from her, or her department. We would have welcomed her assistance--it would have made our task much easier. But we had reason to believe she might actually try to hinder us. And that, Mr. Mayor, is why we chose to 'circumvent the law'. And more: we actively conspired to avoid Ehm'luruus' notice. And if we hadn't…well, given what I saw in the Undercity yesterday, it's probable my wife and children would be dead or brainless by now."

He stared hard at the two of them, daring them to challenge him--but they did not. Sah'chass turned away, his expression troubled, and Rogers simply nodded. "Thank you, Mr. Abrams. You are excused. Commodore Ehm'ayla?"

I stood. It seemed a kilometer at least to the lectern, and my legs barely consented to carry me. On the way I passed Joel, and he smiled reassuringly. "They're eating out of our hands," he breathed. Maybe so--but still, I had no illusions. Whatever happened, whatever punishment was meted out, would fall solely upon me. I might leave here an involuntary civilian--or I might be headed to the stockade to await court-martial. It depended on this one woman's mood.

Admiral Rogers peered at me sternly, and her words seemed to indicate that she'd been reading my mind. "Commodore," she said, "the more I learn of these events, the more convinced I am that you are the crux. None of this would have happened, had you not come to Sah'aar."

I nodded. "You are correct, Admiral," I said.

"Which may not, however," she went on, "be entirely a bad thing. In fact the opposite may well be true. Now, would you please tell us how you came to be involved?"

"There may be little I can add to what the others have already said," I told her. "But I will try." And with that I took a deep breath and launched into the tale.

About forty-five minutes later, Admiral Rogers held up her hand, bringing me to a halt. "I believe that is sufficient," she said. "As you indicated, we have heard a great deal of other testimony already." She turned to Sah'chass. "Have you any questions for the commodore?"

Stirring himself from his gloomy, pensive silence, the mayor cleared his throat thunderously. "Yes, Admiral, I do." He peered at me. "I understand," he went on, "that you have held your present rank for only a short time?"

"That is so," I agreed. "My promotion from commander occurred just over a month ago." I paused. "May I ask what you are suggesting, Mr. Mayor?"

He spread his hands, looking wounded. "Nothing at all," he said. "I merely wonder if perhaps your relative inexperience with such a high position has clouded your judgment. Perhaps--no doubt inadvertently--you have abused your new-found authority."

Instantly my claws expressed, but my angry rebuttal was interrupted. "Excuse me," Admiral Ehm'rael said mildly, "may I make an observation?"

"You may, Admiral" Rogers said respectfully.

Ehm'rael leaned forward. "Commodore Ehm'ayla's tenure in her present rank is irrelevant," she said. "Her CF career spans thirty-four years; of all those present here, only I served longer. The fact that she spent nineteen of those years as a commander implies nothing about her ability. I have known her quite literally all her life, Mr. Mayor--and I find your inference troubling, to say the least."

"I must agree," Rogers said. She turned to the mayor. "I have reviewed Commodore Ehm'ayla's service record; her judgment and her professionalism are unquestioned. The Admiralty does not hand out promotions to flag rank lightly. You may be assured, she would not be a commodore if she did not deserve it."

Sah'chass grumbled an apology, but was not much put off. "I am still deeply troubled by your usurpation of civil authority, Commodore," he said. "And most especially by your placing a duly-appointed official of my government under arrest. Chief Ehm'luruus has told me of your vendetta against her; were your actions last night not the culmination?"

I sighed. "There is little I can add to what my husband has already so eloquently stated. During my brief stay on Sah'aar I have heard many things about Chief Ehm'luruus--none of them complimentary. If indeed I had a desire for revenge, it would be because she drove me to it. She had my husband arrested, on a groundless charge your District Attorney refused to prosecute. She may even have ordered her officers to harass my mate and son.

"But in fact I am not out for vengeance," I went on. "I simply question her fitness for the position she holds." I turned to glare at her, and she scowled. "Above and beyond all else, a police officer is sworn to protect lives," I said. "And yet Ehm'luruus deliberately sought to delay me when I tried to obtain medical assistance for Sah'larrah and my daughter."

A stir went through the hall. Ehm'luruus said nothing, but she sank deeper into her chair, suddenly unable to hold my gaze. Admiral Rogers held up her hand for silence. "That is a very serious charge, Commodore," she said quietly. "Can you substantiate it?"

I shrugged. "I have witnesses," I said. "All of whom are present now. Ask them."

Rogers glanced at Sah'chass, and he looked away. "I don't believe that will be necessary," she said. She paused. "Commodore, I need not remind you of Combined Forces regulations. You know, as well as I do, that we are forbidden to use our authority to influence local planetary affairs."

"Indeed I do, Admiral," I agreed. Though she herself was doing a pretty good job…

"Under normal circumstances, that is our most important principle." She shook her head. "Though admittedly, this case is in no sense normal. It has been suggested that you abused your authority. But in reviewing the events of the last few weeks, I find little evidence of that--with two important exceptions." She quirked a smile. "One is the method you employed to secure a ship to bring you to Sah'aar--but that is not within my jurisdiction. The other is the matter of Chief Ehm'luruus. To a certain extent, the orders you gave Commander Gould were appropriate. You were concerned for Dr. Sah'larrah's life; that is understandable, and commendable. You also wished to defuse a potentially explosive situation without resorting to violence. The commander's timely arrival allowed just such a resolution.

"However," she went on, her tone hardening, "I cannot support your placing the Chief of Police under arrest." She glanced at Ehm'luruus, and shuddered. "It may well be that she does not deserve the position she holds--but that is not for the Combined Forces to say. A civilian, a citizen of Sah'salaan, may of course bring charges against her--but you are neither. We have no legitimate reason to hold her, and I have no choice but to order her released immediately."

Ehm'luruus shot me a triumphant look--but the admiral's next words caused her nasty grin to freeze solid. "It is my strong recommendation, however," Rogers said, "that Mayor Sah'chass examine the allegations against her very closely." She turned her dark eyes on him. "Do I have your assurances on that?"

He hesitated for a long moment, a look of sheer terror on his face. He knew, as did everyone in the room, that no matter what he did, his career was over. If he investigated, she would drag him down with her; if he stonewalled, he would be accused of covering up. Either way, after the next election Sah'aar's largest city would have a new mayor--and a new Chief of Police too. "Of course, Admiral," he said finally, faintly.

"Excellent," Rogers said. Her gaze shifted. "I must say I take a much dimmer view of your actions, Admiral Ehm'rael. Because you are a Fleet Admiral, and retired, there is little I can do; certainly our superiors would never agree to file charges against someone with your reputation. I might revoke your security clearance--but under the circumstances, I will not. In the future, Admiral, if you need assistance from the Combined Forces, I'd be obliged if you would come to me first. I assure you, I will listen."

Ehm'rael bowed. "Understood, Admiral," she said--but she sounded remarkably unrepentant. I knew, as did Rogers, that she would repeat her actions in a heartbeat, and with no qualms whatsoever. Honor and loyalty meant far more to her than regulations.

"Mr. Mayor," Rogers said, "in light of what I've heard, I don't believe it will be necessary for the District Attorney to file charges against Mr. Abrams or his--shall we say--co-conspirators. Do you agree?"

There was a definite edge in her voice, and I smiled to myself. So much for staying out of local politics… The mayor's eyes narrowed, and his whiskers bristled--but then, with a sigh, he nodded. "Yes, Admiral," he said. "That will be my recommendation." He glanced at me. "Commodore, do you intend to press charges against Dr. Sah'larrah, for his involvement in the kidnapping plot?"

That question shocked me, and I hesitated before answering, aware of my family's eyes boring into my back. "No," I said. "I do not. He was not in his right mind at the time--for reasons that are easy to understand. Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana were far more culpable than he…and the Goddess has dealt with them Herself."

"In that event…" the mayor began. He was about to declare the meeting closed--which worked for me--but he was interrupted, from a most unlikely quarter: Sah'jinn

Seated beside Sah'majha, he had listened quietly for almost two hours; and finally--so it seemed--he could stand it no longer. He leaped to his feet. "Excuse me, Mr. Mayor. May I have your permission to speak?"

Sah'chass scowled. "Who the Dark are you?" he demanded, gazing suspiciously at the young doctor's ill-fitting day-robe and bald head.

"I am Sah'jinn; I am--was--the Undercity's physician."

Sah'chass turned to Rogers. "Why is this man not being held with the others?"

"He accompanied Dr. Sah'larrah to the hospital last night," I explained. "And helped with his care."

"And I summoned him here," Rogers said. She smiled and nodded. "Certainly you may speak, Doctor. Please proceed."

"Thank you, Admiral." Sah'jinn took a deep breath. "This discussion has touched upon many topics," he went on. "But nothing has been said about the future of the Undercity and its inhabitants--including myself."

"That is not the focus of this meeting, Doctor," Rogers said. "It may be too complicated a matter to solve in a single afternoon."

"Granted," Sah'jinn said. "But nonetheless I beg leave to make a few observations--to 'put my oar in,' as the Terrans have it."

"Go on."

"I have not had an opportunity to confer with my fellow citizens since the evacuation; but I believe I speak for many of them when I say…we wish to go back."

There was a moment of stunned silence. Then Rogers said, "Pardon me, Doctor? I understood that conditions down there were somewhat unpleasant…"

"To a certain extent, yes," Sah'jinn agreed. "But that was due entirely to Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana. They perverted our goals--and our dreams. You are aware of Sah'rajj's physical condition; I believe it influenced his emotional state as well. It may well be said that we suffered his wrath against the world that made him what he was." He paused, and shuddered. "But those days are gone, and I believe many of my fellow pioneers will wish to renew our experiment, as it was begun. For my part, I know I do."

"Commodore?" Rogers asked me. "Do you have any comment?"

I glanced at Sah'jinn, and he returned my gaze hopefully. "I…am of mixed emotions, Admiral," I said slowly. "And as such, I may not be the best person to ask. Certainly the common, rank-and-file inhabitants are blameless, and if they do want to go back...It may be possible, with certain safeguards--including constant contact with the surface. But it may also be that many of them are tired of the experience."

"I tend to agree," Rogers said. She turned. "Mr. Mayor?"

"I will…take the matter under advisement," Sah'chass said. "At present, that is all I can say."

Sah'jinn bowed. "I understand perfectly." He glanced at Rogers. "May I be permitted to speak to my people, Admiral? To gain a sense of their feelings and intentions?"

"Of course, Doctor," she said. "That is easily arranged." She looked around. "If there is no further business, and with the mayor's permission, I declare this meeting closed."

With a vast feeling of relief, I started down from the lectern--but Rogers stopped me. "Oh, Commodore?"

I turned back. "Yes, Admiral?"

She smiled. "It might be best if you return to your Research Center. I have a feeling you'd be much safer there."

I nodded tiredly. "I tend to agree."

And that was that. Joel and the twins met me in the aisle, and Joel slipped an arm around me. "You were magnificent," he said. "And better yet, you're still a commodore."

"For the foreseeable future," I said dryly. The others had clustered around by then, and I clasped the gnarled hand of my oldest friend. "Admiral Ehm'rael," I said, "thank you. I had no idea just how much you and your mate had done…"

"You are welcome, child," she said. "Will we speak again before you depart?"

"Most definitely," I told her. She and Sah'majha departed then, Sah'larssh following closely behind--and of course I noticed the look that young man and my daughter exchanged. They would be seeing each other later too; but the less said about that to my husband, the better. I turned to the other two. "Sah'raada, Ehm'teel--I can never repay you…"

"No need," Ehm'teel said. She embraced her twin. "It was a fair exchange: we gave you back your freedom--and you gave me back my brother. And a father for my kits, the Goddess willing."

I glanced at Sah'jinn, and smiled tenderly. He had finally begun to sag, his exhaustion catching up with him, his eyes half-closed and his tail dragging. "I prescribe sleep, Doctor," I told him.

He nodded. "I concur," he said. "And I certainly would--if I had anyplace to go."

"You do," Ehm'teel said, linking an arm with his. "Our apartment. It was paid up for two months, and Ehm'luruus did not ransack it too badly. Our sofa may not be the most comfortable…"

"But it is better than a bench in Alliance Plaza," Sah'jinn said dryly. "I accept unconditionally."

They led him away, and Joel bent to kiss my cheek. "Come on," he said. "I have a surprise for you."

I quirked an eyebrow, and he smiled secretively. Together, with the twins in tow, we made our way out--but we were blocked at the door by Ehm'kall and Ehm'herra. The younger woman stepped forward, raising her hands. "Please wait…"

I peered at her. "Do you have something to say, Ehm'kall?"

"Yes," she said, her voice almost inaudible. She took a deep breath. "My mother and I owe you an apology, Commodore," she went on. "We have wronged you, and we are sorry."

I bit back my first reply. In the final analysis they were victims too, as much as my kits and myself. We had all been ground under the wheels of Sah'larrah's obsession. And often, in the midst of terrible grief, things can be said that are regretted later. But once spoken, the words cannot be recalled--nor can the feelings be entirely expunged. "Your duty is no longer to me," I said. "It is to that young woman who just left--and her kits. His kits. Save your energy, Ehm'kall. For her--and for them." And without another word I swept past her, out into the sunny afternoon, finally and entirely free.

###

I smiled at Joel across the expanse of red-checked tablecloth. "You know," I commented, "not many people drink coffee with pizza."

He grinned as he reached for another slice, loaded with pepperoni and stringy with mozzarella, and yes, at his elbow stood a steaming mug. The proprietor, having grown tired of running refills, had left a thermal carafe there on the table. "I went without for days, down in the Undercity," he reminded me. "My caffeine level was getting dangerously low."

That I could well believe: for him, three days without French Roast would have been a penance indeed. The kits and I, rather more sensibly, were sticking to iced tea. "Poor dear," I said in mock sympathy. "However did you survive?"

"It wasn't easy," he said seriously. He patted my arm. "But for you, darling, even that sacrifice was worthwhile."

"Thank you very much," I said dryly I helped myself to a slice as well--and as I did, I gazed around in wonder. My own planet, my home town…and I'd had no idea anything like this existed. Shows what happens when you let humans run around loose…

Joel had managed to track down a real pizzeria, there in the maze of streets and alleys surrounding the Terran Embassy. Not large--just a hole in the wall, really, containing a half-dozen trestle tables and a few booths--but certainly authentic. Candles flickered in red and green jars, providing the only light; holos of Venice, Naples and Rome covered the walls; and a mixture of opera arias and Italian folk songs played through hidden speakers. The inviting odors of garlic and cheese wafted at intervals through the swinging kitchen door.

The place was almost deserted--but of the few others there, every one was human. I suspected that few, if any, of my species frequented the establishment. Certainly the owner (a middle-aged Terran Italian, with an accent so thick as to be almost impenetrable) seemed surprised to see my kits and me. He was moved to action, though, when Joel dropped his credit-card on the counter and said, "Keep 'em coming."

And he had--until there were no less than three battered pans stacked up before us, boundless and bare, covered only with crumbs. The fourth was more than three-quarters empty. Never in my life had I seen two kits put away so much. And not half-bad, either: crust just the right side of chewy, sauce flavorful, cheese abundant, and pepperoni spicy. And yes, Joel had even remembered the anchovies. Not quite as good as a little place we knew on Lighthouse Avenue in Monterey--but it would have to do. The twins seemed to have finally reached critical mass: they sat leaning against each other, half-asleep and purring in contentment. I was feeling stuffed myself, and my hernia was warning me that I'd best quit while I was ahead.

For a time Joel gazed at the twins with amusement and pleasure. Then he turned to me. "Ayla," he said, "don't you think it's time for us to go home?"

I nodded. "Yes," I said. "It is. In a way I'm almost sorry--it feels as if I had no time here at all. We never got a chance to explore or sightsee, all together. But it's time we got back to reality." I indicated the pans. "If nothing else, we've got to get back to work to pay for this."

"To make those two happy," Joel said, in low and earnest tones, "I'd spend my last centicredit. I'd wash dishes or scrub floors." He paused. "I always knew Tom was still alive," he went on. "Admiral Ehm'rael received images from the radar satellites every hour. We could see him moving around, shifting position a few hundred meters a day. We could even guess when he was eating or sleeping. But you and Rae…I couldn't be certain. Not really. I didn't sleep for days after you vanished. The thought of never seeing you again was more than I could endure."

I grasped his hand. "I know," I said softly. Somewhere deep in my mind, I recognized the incongruity of having so deep a conversation over a rapidly-congealing pizza, with "That's Amore" playing in the background--but the emotions were there within us, and needed to be expressed. "For Rae and me it was exactly the opposite. We could imagine what you were going through, and it killed us to know there was nothing we could do to help you."

He gazed into my eyes. "Ayla," he said, "I love you, and I don't want to be parted from you again--ever."

I brushed his cheek. "You won't."

"Er--Dad? Can I ask you a question?"

Joel and I looked up sharply, to see our son gazing across at us. Wide awake now, his expression was anxious, and a red line of tomato sauce encircled his mouth.

"Of course," Joel said, handing him a napkin. "What's on your mind."

Tom shifted uncomfortably. "I've been wondering," he said. "Do I have to spend the rest of my life being visible from orbit?"

Joel nodded seriously. "Yes, son, you do."

Tom jumped, his eyes widening. "You're kidding."

"I'm afraid not," Joel said. I was about to object, but I saw the twinkle in his eye, and I desisted. "And a good thing too," he went on. "Your mother and I have been discussing this; we've decided we need to keep better track of you. And your sister too, of course--we'll be taking her to see Sah'majha tomorrow."

That jolted Rae out of her somnolence. The two of them stared at their father, aghast, too horrified to speak.

Joel burst out laughing. "I'm joking," he told them. He rubbed Tom's fuzzy scalp. "The nanobots started disassembling the metallic lattice two days ago. In a week it will be gone, and so will they."

They smiled in relief. They'd grown up with Joel's quirky sense of humor, and would normally have seen through his teasing instantly. But recent events had left them a good deal more credulous: after Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana, anything was possible.

Tom grinned. "It's good to have you back, Dad."

Joel clasped their hands. "I think that's my line."


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