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 SIXTEEN


The next two days were filled with good-byes--and I hate good-byes.

Both Admiral Rogers and Joel were correct, though: it was indeed past time for the Abrams family to return to Terra. The mere thought of Pacific Grove was enough to melt my heart. The Bay, Ocean View Avenue, the gulls, the surf…even the fog. Already we'd been away too long. Joel and Tom felt the same; I could see it in their eyes. But unfortunately, Rae's situation was somewhat more complicated. I did not envy her the choice she must make…nor, in all fairness, could I take it out of her hands.

But as much as some of us may have wanted to, we could not leave immediately. There remained too many things to clear up--and too many emotional scenes to endure.

It was early evening when we finally returned to my father's home, stuffed to the gills with pizza: a glorious, warm, flower-scented, purple-hued twilight that slowly, almost imperceptibly, faded into a calm cool night. Too late--and too full--to join the rest of the family for dinner, we retired to the little patio outside our suite.

When we arrived, I was not surprised to find a message waiting for my son: a text-gram hyperzap from a certain familiar address in downtown San Francisco. Tom refused to read it out loud, but he did give us the non-intimate gist: Ehm'tassaa was alive, well--and vacillating between relief and anger for the worry he'd caused her. (Which isn't logical--but is eminently female.) Tom was virtually floating as he joined us on the terrace.

We remained there the rest of the evening, and well into the night, talking. We didn't bother to turn on the lights, and very soon our disembodied voices floated forth from ghost-like outlines, insubstantial in the shifting moonlight. Our conversation--if you can call it that--followed no logical progression, and that was fine with us. It was enough simply to free-associate, lazily reminiscing. We'd had many such discussions over the years--in our own living room, or in camp as we lay cocooned in our sleeping bags--and while they solve nothing, nor even touched on any subjects of great importance, I treasured them as among the most meaningful of my life. It was about ten o'clock when one voice fell silent, and we discovered that its owner--Ehm'rael--was fast asleep. It took all three of us to get her into bed, and afterward, as he painfully straightened his back, Joel commented, "That was a lot easier when she was six years old."

"And a lot more frequent," I replied. Not that we could blame her: it would be some time before her legendary stamina returned. The rest of us went to bed under our own power--and as for what Joel and I did when we got there…well, we'd been apart for more than three weeks, and I think we were entitled.

###

The next morning we went to the hospital.

Or--more accurately--to the medical building that stood beside Sah'salaan General, and was connected to the hospital by a wide covered bridge. We were there to see old Dr. Sah'vuul, my parents' personal physician. Well into his seventies, he'd been practicing for almost half a century, and showed no sign of slowing down, though his mane and fur were as white as his starched smock. Not at all dour or taciturn, he was in fact quite chatty and jovial, in a way that delighted my mother but drove my father nuts. His practice was busy, his spacious and opulent waiting room packed full--and I was both embarrassed and gratified when we were immediately ushered past the crowd and into an examination room. It was all I could do to ignore the hostile stares that followed us. Needless to say, Father had made the appointment personally.

Tom and I endured brief examinations, to determine whether our imprisonment, or those two impromptu hyperjumps, had left any ill effects; and--in my son's case--to make sure Sah'majha's nanobots truly were removing the radar-reflective coating from his bones. But the doctor's main concern--and mine--was Ehm'rael. Tom and Joel left the room during her exam, but at her request I stayed. She seemed reluctant to disrobe--and not only because Sah'vuul was a near-stranger. She had recovered sufficient strength to feel ashamed of her emaciated form. Her outward appearance was the least of my worries, though: at sixteen she was in her prime growth period, still forming bone and muscle, and might have done herself permanent harm.

Sah'vuul's diagnosis was reassuring, however. Finally coaxing her out of her shortalls and T-shirt, he changed the dressings on her leg, declaring the long claw-marks to be healing well. He injected her with a vitamin and mineral complex, to boost her energy-level--but apart from that, he had just one word: "Eat!" A directive she'd have no trouble following--not if the previous afternoon was any indication. With luck, she'd be back to her optimal weight before her next fertile period.

With that done (and, not surprisingly, no mention of a bill) we departed Sah'vuul's office and crossed over to the hospital--and in my case at least, with a certain degree of trepidation. It had been in my mind to visit Sah'larrah by myself. To see him, before we left Sah'aar, was a duty I could not honorably evade, as much as I might have wished to. It was likely to be an emotional scene, and the addition of Joel and the twins would, I feared, make it unendurably so. But Tom and Rae had begged to be included, and on reflection, I decided I owed them that much: a chance to make peace with the other half of their genes. And that, of course, meant that Joel would have to be there as well, to protect his interests.

Cardiac Care is the single biggest department at Sah'salaan General, taking up the entire tenth through fifteenth floors. At one time or another, a significant fraction of the adult population will pass through that place, where heart replacements are done almost on an assembly-line basis, around the clock. Usually those surgeries are carefully planned, scheduled weeks or months in advance; emergencies like Sah'larrah's are rare.

He was easy enough to find, there in his private room--for which, of course, my father was paying. The nurse's station blocked the corridor like a barricade, and a stern, middle-aged female in a glaring white day-robe gazed balefully down at us from that high perch. "Dr. Sah'larrah's condition is still critical," she stated. "And he has other visitors at present." She glared at the twins, evidently judging their ages. "And in any event, we do not allow visits by minors, unless they are related to the patient."

Tom exchanged a glance with his sister, then shrugged. "Dr. Sah'larrah is our biological father," he said, while Rae, with an impish smile, hooked her arm through Joel's.

"But for all other purposes," she said, "this is our real father."

That flummoxed the poor woman entirely, and before she'd had a chance to recover, we ducked past her and continued down the corridor. She didn't call Security, though, so she must have decided to give in gracefully.

As we searched for Sah'larrah's room, I frowned. Other visitors? I thought. Who in the world--? Please the Goddess it wasn't Ehm'kall and Ehm'herra--but if so, I was quite prepared to simply walk out. Them, I'd had enough of--and vice-versa, no doubt

The room was indeed private--but in this case "private" also meant "tiny," and windowless. His bed, and its ancillary equipment, almost filled the microscopic space. There was just one chair, pulled up along the right side of the bed--and occupied. Fortunately, the woman who sat there was neither Ehm'kall or Ehm'herra, but Ehm'teel. And beside her, oddly enough, stood Sah'majha. Deep in quiet conversation, they looked up in surprise as we entered. Ehm'teel clasped our hands in turn, even Joel's, in true Sah'aaran fashion. "It is good to see you again," she said softly.

"Are we intruding?" I asked.

"Not at all," she assured me. "I have been keeping vigil, so to speak--and Sah'majha and I had things to discus. Sah'larrah is asleep; he has been drifting in and out all day. I am assured that is to be expected."

We shuffled in, and stood awkwardly with our backs to the wall. I glanced briefly at Sah'majha, wondering what Ehm'rael's mate could have to discuss with Ehm'teel, but in response he smiled secretively. I turned my attention to the bed.

In a purely relative sense, Sah'larrah did look better. He lay flat on his back, covered with a light blanket; only his arms and close-cropped head were visible. His eyes were closed, his face peaceful, and the blanket rose and fell with his regular, deep breathing. But it was his coloration that caught my eye: his ears, and the palms of his hands, were once again a healthy pink, not the horrible sallow grey they'd been for so many days. His bed was surrounded with enough equipment to fly it to Terra, including the inevitable machine that went "ping" in tune to every steady, regular beat of his new mechanical heart. A clear plastic breathing-tube had been inserted into his nostrils, and an IV setup dripped clear fluid into his left arm.

It shouldn't have been that way. Heart replacements are common, virtually routine--and are almost always performed long before the situation becomes life-threatening. Even my father, stubborn as he was, hadn't fooled around with that: when Dr. Sah'vuul told him his heart was weakening, he began making arrangements immediately. And because of that, recovery is usually quite swift. My mother was sitting up on the second day, walking up and down the corridor on the third, and home by the end of the week. Father's experience was roughly the same. Only a fool would allow himself to end up like this--or someone who believed he had nothing to lose.

Bending low over him, Ehm'teel laid her hand on his forehead. "Sah'larrah, darling," she said, "there are some people here to see you."

He opened one eye, just a slit, and mumbled, "Can not a man get any sleep around here?" But then he spied the four of us, and his other eye opened. A smile spread slowly across his face. "Ehm'ayla," he said. "Welcome." He tried to raise a hand, but succeeded only in twitching his fingers. "Please come closer--all of you."

The twins and I did so, but not Joel. Flanking me, Tom and Rae gazed upon Sah'larrah, a mixture of pity and horror in their eyes. Advancing age they knew about--but never before had they encountered such a depth of infirmity. Goddess, if only they'd known him when he was forty! Joel remained against the wall, silent, his arms crossed, his expression pensive and half-disapproving.

With a supreme effort, Sah'larrah lifted his right hand a few millimeters above the blankets, and I clasped it. There was no strength in his fingers; indeed, his body seemed as fragile as a second-summer puff-flower, which blossoms and withers in a single afternoon. "I am sorry," he said. His words came slowly and almost inaudibly, with frequent pauses for labored breathing. "I have caused you all much grief and pain. I do not expect your forgiveness…"

"Nevertheless," I told him softly, "you have it." The twins looked up, astonished, and Joel stirred, his frown deepening.

Sah'larrah's eyebrows rose. "As easily as that?"

I shrugged. "I know you," I said. "Malice and spite are alien to you. You were driven by forces that most Sah'aarans can't even begin to understand. I don't myself--not really. And in any case, you were as helpless in that situation as I. At least I assume you didn't approve of what Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana were doing…?"

"No," he said tiredly. "Absolutely not. When they first came to me, I found their plans compelling, their enthusiasm infectious. Not until much later did I realize what kind of monsters I had fallen in with--and to what extent they had used me. But by then it was too late: too late to leave the Undercity, and too late to alter the plans I'd made. For a time I hoped to be a moderating influence upon them." He shook his head. "Obviously, I was not."

I nodded. I'd expected no less. I took a deep breath, and with a glance at Joel I said, "Sah'larrah, once before I forgave someone who had been driven by intolerable circumstances into actions he later regretted. To refuse to do the same now would be hypocritical. But I will say to you what I said to him: I do forgive you--but you will have to work very, very hard to regain my trust."

He nodded. "I can expect no more," he said. "And I hope someday to once again be worthy of your trust." He smiled wanly at the twins. "I have hurt you most of all," he went on. "Will you accept my apology?"

They glanced at me, as if for guidance, and I kept my expression neutral. This could only be their choice--not mine. I could not demand that they forgive him--and I could not fault them if they refused. Joel watched with narrowed eyes, but remained silent.

Finally Rae spoke, in quiet tones. "Yes," she said. "We will." She grasped her brother's hand. "We have no choice but to be grateful to you; without you we wouldn't even exist. But I think we'll have an even harder time than Mother trusting you. And…I'm sorry, but we can never call you 'Father.'"

"I understand," Sah'larrah said. He nodded at Joel. "I cannot replace this man in your hearts--and I was a fool to try." He nodded at Rae's shrunken body. "My folly came close to killing you." His gaze shifted to Joel. "And you, Mr. Abrams? You have said nothing thus far."

Joel shook himself. He remained silent for a long moment, chewing his lower lip. Then he said, "I'm afraid I'm not quite so forgiving, Doctor. There are three things I value above all else, and can't be replaced. You helped give me two of those, and yes, I'm grateful. I have to be. But then you tried to take them away--and that, you had no right to do. I'm sorry, but I don't believe I'll ever be able to forgive you--let alone trust you."

I opened my mouth to rebuke him; but Sah'larrah interrupted. "If our positions were reversed," he said, "I would feel exactly the same. You need not worry, Mr. Abrams. I will not say the best man won--because that would imply there had been a contest. They are yours, Mr. Abrams, as they always have been. You may take them home and resume your lives, and never hear from me again."

Joel turned away, looking troubled. Ehm'teel, sensing the tension, cleared her throat. "In any event," she said wryly, laying a hand across her abdomen, "Sah'larrah will soon be far too busy to trouble anyone."

I smiled, grateful for the distraction. "Your kits were not harmed by your adventures, then?"

"No," she confirmed. "This morning I saw my OB-GYN; all is well." She grinned. "Though she did recommend that I refrain from such exploits until they are born. I do not believe that will be difficult."

Sah'majha cleared his throat. "And in a manner of speaking," he said, "that is why I am here." I quirked a quizzical eyebrow, and he smiled. "Sah'larrah's difficulties have some interesting parallels to your own, many years ago," he went on. "I have studied his medical records, in conjunction with the estimable Dr. Sah'jinn. Sah'larrah's condition is rare, but by no means unique. His pheromones appear to be very slightly out of kilter, so to speak; it is impossible for him to bond with any female."

I nodded slowly. The research I'd done in Father's library--was that one or two centuries ago?--had hinted at just that. My kits hadn't inherited Sah'larrah's peculiarity--obviously not--but we would have to keep an eye on their future offspring. Had I known beforehand, I might have reconsidered my decision to make use of Sah'larrah's DNA. In fact… "Were you aware of this?" I asked him, and he nodded.

"Yes," he said. "I have been for some considerable time. Before your kits were conceived, in fact. I thought I had come to terms with it; I believed it the Goddess' will. But as the years dragged on…"

"I understand," I said. I turned to Sah'majha. "Are you say you can help him?"

"I believe so," the older man said. "Dr. Sah'jinn considered it very curious that Ehm'teel was sexually receptive to Sah'larrah during her fertile period. In theory, that should be impossible for an unbonded female. It is our belief--the doctor's and mine--that Ehm'teel and Sah'larrah are an extremely close hormonal match. Only the stray protein sequences in Sah'larrah's pheromones keep them from bonding. It should be a relatively simple task to program a species of nanobot to seek out and destroy those proteins. If Sah'jinn and I are correct, a bonding should then occur naturally."

"And you're willing to do it?" I asked. "Even after what happened last time?"

Sah'majha glanced significantly at Ehm'teel's stomach. "I suspect," he said dryly, "the public will be more forgiving on this occasion."

He was probably right, I realized--and not only because of Ehm'teel's pregnancy. I reached across the bed to grasp her hand. "And you want this?" I asked gently.

She smiled, and laid her free hand on Sah'larrah's arm. "More than anything," she said.

"And so do I," Sah'larrah said firmly. He peered up at me. "When you availed yourself of Sah'majha's services, my feelings were those of the majority: I believed what you had done to be unnatural, even obscene." He shook his head. "I was wrong. Truly, Sah'majha is doing the Goddess' work. She does not wish us to be alone."

I bowed. "Then I wish you the very best of luck," I said. "I know you'll be happy together."

…Even as I spoke those words, though, I wondered how true they were. He was almost forty years her senior, and though his new heart might extend his life-span by a good fifty years, it was almost inevitable that she would far outlive him--or that his death would kill her long before her time. Such a great disparity of age between bond-mates is unheard-of; the average is less than ten years.

…She would not regret it, though, and neither would he--because bonding does not permit regrets. And for their children's sake, this was certainly the right thing to do. I could not imagine kits raised by an unbonded, unmated couple. That truly would be unnatural.

"Ehm'teel," Tom said suddenly, "can my sister and I make a request?"

She smiled. "Of course, Tom."

He glanced at Rae, and she nodded. He went on, "Your kits will be our half-siblings…"

"That is true," Ehm'teel confirmed.

Tom swallowed. "When the time comes," he said, "when they're old enough to understand… Rae and I would like them to know. About their relationship to us, I mean."

There was a pause, and Ehm'teel glanced questioningly at my mate and me. I shrugged--their choice, not mine--and Joel turned away. Ehm'teel nodded. "Of course they shall know," she said. "And they will be honored. I am sure."

"I will be a good father to them," Sah'larrah said. His voice was growing fainter, his eyes drifting closed; his burst of energy had run its course. "I will."

Joel and I exchanged a glance and a smile. Parenthood had been hard enough for two perfectly healthy thirty-five-year-olds; Sah'larrah had no idea what he was getting himself into. At least he had a few months yet to get back on his feet.

I smiled and leaned down to nuzzle his cheek. "I know you will," I said.

###

That afternoon we had a visitor: Dr. Sah'jinn.

Our time with Sah'larrah was all too brief, before a nurse with expressed claws and fire in her eyes arrived to clear us all out, Ehm'teel included. We went without protest, knowing we had little choice: his condition was still critical, after all. He had dozed off by then, thus sparing me a painful good-bye: I doubted whether I would see him again before we departed. Sah'majha headed home to his mate--and his lab--and Ehm'teel joined the rest of us for lunch, at a little outdoor café not far from the hospital.

When at last we took our leave of her, I was surprised by the vehemence of her good-bye. Right there on the sidewalk she embraced and nuzzled us, one after another. Even Joel did not escape. "I will be in touch," she said, "after my kits are born." And then she was gone, sweeping briskly down the street toward a shuttle stop. Considering the number of bridges she and Sah'larrah and burned behind them, at Sah'salaan U and elsewhere, their next few months might be interesting indeed. They might be needing those "unpaid royalties" my father once spoke of.

The four of us had things to do. Packing, mainly: the contents of our closets and dressers somehow had to get back into the suitcases it had all come out of, with the addition of the large quantity of swag the twins had accumulated. Joel took control of that process, putting Tom and Rae to work, while I sat down for a conversation with the computer.

Logging into CFNet, I was astounded to find that I was still officially alive. All through my career I'd heard the horror stories: an enlisted man, or even an officer, is mistakenly listed dead in combat--and spends the rest of his life trying to convince the computers otherwise. I'd been dreading the fight to regain my salary, my pension and my position at the Research Center--not to mention such purely civilian matters as my voting-right and the title to our house. But to my amazement, there was none of that. If indeed I had ever been listed dead, the notification had never made its way out of the local CF computers. As far as the Admiralty was concerned, I was still among the quick--and not even AWOL. That had to be the work of a certain slightly unscrupulous retired admiral. My kits were officially alive too--but the complications they'd have faced would have been considerably easier to correct. I think.

Even more astounding was the fact that Cuvier, our stolen Darwin-class vessel, was still patiently awaiting us at the STS. That, I could scarcely believe: I had truly expected her to be gone, recalled by Admiral McPherson. Somehow--never mind how--Ehm'rael had been able to override or deceive him. And that could be either good or bad, depending on how you looked at it. On the one hand, it would greatly ease our trip home--but it also meant I might be facing McPherson's considerable wrath when we arrived. Worry about that when the time comes.

With those facts established, it was not difficult for me to put my own influence to work, to have Cuvier prepared for our departure, and to make arrangements for the bulk of our luggage to be taken aboard. The ship would be flight-ready the day after tomorrow, and that was good enough.

I had just completed these tasks when Sah'jinn arrived, shown to our suite by a member of Father's household staff. He looked much better that afternoon--in many ways. He appeared well-rested, for one thing, his eyes wide-open and his whiskers standing at full attention. And he was considerably better-dressed. His blue day-robe and tastefully-embroidered collar were obviously brand-new, fit quite well, and even matched. I'd grown so used to seeing him in that coarse grey kilt and stained apron…the change was startling, even alarming. If he'd had a mane, he would have looked quite distinguished. He carried a tubular black travel case, somewhat battered, and as he entered he gazed at me in trepidation, no doubt recalling our conversation in the hallway at the Government Building. "Am I intruding?" he asked hesitantly.

I smiled and draped an arm around his shoulders, drawing him into the room. "Not at all," I said--and I meant it. I'd have been a hypocrite all over again if I refused to forgive him. Desperate circumstances result in desperate behavior--as I knew all too well.

We ushered him out onto the patio, where another warm, beautiful day was in progress. He refused Joel's offer of food, but did accept a tall glass of ice-cold T'samma juice, gulping at it thirstily. "Can you stay for dinner?" I asked hopefully.

"Alas no," he said sadly. "I must meet with Sah'raada and Ehm'teel; we have much to discuss." He smiled. "It feels good to sit down; I have had a busy day."

"So have we," Joel commented wryly. "What have you been up to?"

He raised his arms. "Shopping, for one thing," he said. "I had despaired of being able to do so, as I have no money; but it appears I have a line of credit of which I was not aware."

As he spoke he glanced sidelong at me, and I knew what he was thinking--but he was wrong. In fact I'd had nothing to do with it. Not directly, at least. Once again I detected the hand of Sah'surraa at work.

"--And I have met with some of my people," he went on.

"How are they doing?" I asked.

"As well as can be expected," he said. "As Admiral Rogers indicated, they are housed at CF Headquarters. As refugees, rather than prisoners. When we entered the Undercity we gave up everything of our old lives; most of them lack the means to go elsewhere now. They are being well treated, and are reasonably comfortable--but needless to say, it cannot continue indefinitely."

"Did you put your proposal to them?"

"I did." He sighed. "It is much as you said, Ehm'ayla. Reactions were…mixed. Some are indeed tired of it; for whatever reason; because of Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana, or simply because they no longer wish to live underground. They have lost their enthusiasm for the project. But they are the minority. Almost three-quarters of those I interviewed are willing to consider the details of my plan."

"Do you have details?" Joel asked with a smile.

"Oh yes," Sah'jinn assured him. "Sah'raada and Ehm'teel have been helping me; they have been trained in the art of writing proposals. We hope to present our ideas to my people within a few days, and to Mayor Sah'chass soon afterward."

"What exactly are you proposing?" I asked.

"A return to where we began," he said. "With modifications. No more secrecy, no more armed guards, no more tracking collars. The people would no longer be prisoners; they would be free to visit the surface at any time. Encouraged to, in fact. They will be allowed to dress however they wish, and--" he winked at Tom-- "wear their manes at any length that pleases them. I even hope we may be able to recruit new citizens. Sah'salaan University seems a good place to look."

"Quite frankly," I told him, "I'm not sure whether to wish you luck or not."

He nodded. "I understand," he said. "Believe me, I do. But many of us truly believed in the Undercity, Ehm'ayla. It was our dream--our very lives, in fact."

I covered his hand with mine. "I know. And for that reason alone, I do hope you succeed."

"Thank you." He paused, then went on, "I have also been to see my patient--"

"Meaning Sah'larrah?" I asked.

"Indeed," he said with enormous dignity. "If you check the hospital records, you will find that I am his physician of record. I am most pleased with his progress." He grinned. "Though I am somewhat disappointed that you and your kits chose to see old Sah'vuul instead of me."

"You know him?"

"Only too well," Sah'jinn said ruefully. "He was my supervisor during my residency at Sah'salaan General. You might say he drove me underground. A fine physician, of course," he added hurriedly.

"And you weren't exactly available," I pointed out.

"True." He paused again. "I have also been down to the Undercity."

My whiskers twitched in surprise. "You have? How? And why?"

"As to the how," he said, "I made use of Sah'rajj's tiny-tunnel network, by way of Sah'larrah's remote control." He nodded at Joel. "Courtesy of Mr. Abrams. I was permitted to accompany a CF Security search party."

"I have been curious to know what they found," I said.

"No stragglers," Sah'jinn said. "They did of course find our livestock; fortunately the animals had not been left alone long enough to come to harm. They were being cared for when I departed." He paused, then went on, "The searchers also located Sah'rajj's journal. He used paper and pen, rather than a palm-reader…which I suppose is predictable. I was able to read a few pages before it was taken away as evidence."

"And--?" I prompted.

"And," he said with a faint smile, "it appears I was correct after all--entirely by accident. Sah'rajj had a very orderly mind--obsessively so--and that was reflected in his writing. A large segment was devoted to what he termed 'Long-Range Plans.'"

"Which included acts of sabotage and violence?"

"Just so," Sah'jinn said. He shook his head. "Of course it is impossible to know how many of them he would actually have put into action. Perhaps none at all. Many people, so I am told, use their diaries as repositories for their dark fantasies. But nonetheless…"

"Nonetheless," I said wryly, "thank you for not saying 'I told you so.'"

"I cannot," he said simply. "Not when I could just as easily have been wrong." He shook his head. "Now it will be my job to convince Mayor Sah'chass that Sah'rajj's goals were not shared by a majority of the community."

"The…remains," I said. "The ones found by CF Security. Were they Ehm'maana's?"

He nodded. "Yes," he said softly. "There was little left; certainly nothing recognizably Sah'aaran. Little more than an undifferentiated lump of flesh, so I am told. But the genetic tests came back late yesterday, and they were conclusive."

Joel turned away, and I clasped his hand. Of all the enigmas surrounding our time in the Undercity, Ehm'maana remained the most baffling. To understand Sah'rajj was simplicity itself in comparison. Albinos exhibit a variety of physical problems, I'd once told Rae; certainly it is not hard to imagine that his mind must have been affected as well. Sah'jinn had come closest to the truth, I felt, when he described the Undercity as Sah'rajj's rage against the universe that made him what he was. His attempt, perhaps, to create a world where he would be in charge, where he would be feared and obeyed--as opposed to being pitied and scorned.

But Ehm'maana…to all outward appearances she was perfectly normal. Was it her devotion to her twin--that deep psychic connection, which no Sah'aaran can avoid--which caused her to become caught up in his delusions? She'd done many terrible things, and willingly too …but in those last few moments, faced with the inescapable choice between killing and lobotomizing my kits and myself…her armor had seemed to show a few cracks. Would she have stopped him, had Joel and his friends not arrived? Did she have the strength? As with many things, we'd never know.

"And what of the sperm samples?" I asked. "The 'donations' from all the males in the community?"

"Destroyed," he said flatly. "That is another reason I went below. I expected to find them thawed out, ruined--and I was correct. But I went a step farther. Simply stated, they have been…flushed."

"Glad to hear it," I said. "Needless to say, that will not recur…"

"Needless to say," he agreed. "Any breeding that goes on down there--should the place be reactivated--will occur as the Goddess intended, within bonded matings."

"That is all we can ask."

"Doctor," Rae asked suddenly, "do you know who Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana would have chosen as my 'genetic match,' if they'd gone through with their plans?"

Sah'jinn shook his head. "Not for certain," he said. "But knowing Sah'rajj's sense of irony, I rather suspect it might have been your friend Sah'paar."

Rae blanched, and Joel scowled. "If I ever catch up with that young punk…" he growled.

"He is more to be pitied than censured," Sah'jinn said. "He was badly misled--as were many of our adopted youngsters. We have our work cut out for us, deprogramming them. Fortunately they are still young; and teenagers especially change their allegiances easily."

"If you say so," Joel said, unconvinced.

"And finally," he said, changing the subject with obvious relief, "I bear gifts." He pulled the travel case into his lap, opened it, and rummaged inside. "These are yours, if I am not mistaken."

He handed Tom and Rae a pair of small shining-gold objects, and their eyes widened in astonishment. A matched set of wrist-chronos: their birthday presents from their father and me just a couple months before. Too expensive for teenagers, perhaps--but that was Joel. There'd be no doubt who the watches belonged to: their names were inscribed on the cases. In the rush of events, it had not occurred to me to wonder whether my kits had been wearing their chronos when they were snatched; but in retrospect, of course they would have--and of course the things would have been taken away, along with the rest of their clothing. "Thank you, Doctor," Rae said, and Tom nodded vigorously. "Very much," he added.

"You are quite welcome," he said. He reached into the bag again. "And these are yours, Ehm'rael."

He brought forth a thick sheaf of paper, crudely bound with a strip of grey cloth--Rae's Undercity journal, left behind during our mad dash for freedom--and four identical earrings, dangling clusters of tiny multicolored beads. Rae accepted those items with delight, hugging them to her chest; no doubt she had thought them lost forever.

I gazed quizzically at Sah'jinn. "The journal was left in Tom and Rae's room," I said. "But the chronos and the earrings--?"

"I found those in the desk, in Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana's office," he said. "Along with these." He handed me a pair of small plastic cards: the twins' IDs. "What those two wanted with the things, I have no idea--but it appears your kits are glad to get them back."

"I'll say," Joel observed wryly, watching his daughter leaf quickly through pages jammed full with hieroglyphic characters, while Tom gazed curiously over her shoulder.

"And for you," Sah'jinn said with a smile, bringing forth a large glass jar filled to the top with green powder. "This should last a while," he said. He handed me a folded slip of paper. "And here is the recipe. You asked me for it, you may recall."

"I do," I said. I could have used his mixture the night before, after all that pizza: my roll of antacids had proved a poor substitute.

"You may find the ingredients difficult to locate on Terra," he went on. "If so, please do contact me; I will be happy to ship you more."

"I certainly will be in touch," I promised. "We all will."

"That would please me greatly." He turned to Joel. "For you, Mr. Abrams, I fear I have nothing--except my sincere thanks. You came to the Undercity thinking only to rescue your family--but in doing so you saved us all."

"A pleasure," Joel said. "And I wish you luck as well. If your Undercity ever needs a good consulting engineer…"

Sah'jinn bowed. "We will most certainly call upon you." He closed his case, and stood. "I must go, I fear. Sah'raada and Ehm'teel are expecting me."

We stood also, and I extended my arms. "May I?"

"Please."

I embraced him firmly, and nuzzled under his chin. "I will not soon forget you, Doctor," I said. "None of us will."

He smiled. "Do come visit me, when next you are on Sah'aar," he said. "I shall not be difficult to find."

###

After Sah'jinn had departed, Joel and I returned to our packing. The kits did too--or so I assumed. I was therefore surprised when Rae came tapping on the door about half an hour later. Leaving Joel folding shirts in the bedroom, I met her in the sitting room. Over her shoulder she carried a small fabric case, like a gym bag; and her expression, as she gazed steadily into my eyes, alternated between fearful uncertainty and grim determination. "Mother," she said softly, "I need to go see Sah'larssh."

I glanced at the bag--and suddenly I understood the full significance of her words. My heart melting, I clasped her hands. "Are you sure, honey?" I asked, and she nodded.

"Yes," she said faintly. She smiled. "Or at least I think I am. We'll see, anyway."

I hugged her, and licked her forehead. "Then there isn't anything more to say."

She nuzzled me. "Thank you, Mother," she said. "I'll--uh--see you later, then."

She departed then, quickly, before she could change her mind. I stood still, battling the tears that dimmed my vision and threatened to spill down my cheeks. I almost went after her…but at that moment a familiar hand fell on my shoulder.

"What was that about?" he asked, perplexed.

I cleared my throat hurriedly. "Rae is going over to Admiral Ehm'rael's house," I explained.

"Oh," he said. He frowned. "What did she have in the bag, then?"

"At a guess," I told him flatly, "a change of clothes and her toothbrush."

Realization dawned then, and his eyes widened. "My God!" he cried. "And you let her? In her condition?"

He headed for the door, but I caught his arm, bringing him to a halt. And if my claws were expressed a trifle, hooking into his sleeve and pricking his skin…well, I imagine the Goddess will forgive me. "Her condition doesn't enter into it," I said. "Sah'larssh isn't exactly in prime shape either. This has to happen, Joel. And it has to happen now--because it might be months before she sees him again. She's going to be miserable enough as it is. Do you really want to make it worse?"

"What I want," he said wistfully, "is my little girl--the one who used to ride to the park on my shoulders." He sighed. "But I guess she's gone for good."

"Physically, yes," I agreed sadly. "Emotionally, no. Never."

He slipped his arms around me, drawing my shoulders against his chest, and for a moment we stood in silence. Then he said, "Ayla? What are the chances she'll want to stay?"

"I wish I knew," I said. "It is possible. And if she does…I think we'll have to let her."

He shook his head. "I hate that idea," he said vehemently. He sighed. "Cross that bridge when we come to it, I guess. In the meantime…"

I smiled wanly. "I know: only twice a year."

He grinned and kissed me. "Actually, I was going to say, 'I hope he'll be careful of her leg.'"

###

Next on the list was my father.

Joel, Tom and I dined with the family that evening, for the first time in weeks--and it was a much less uncomfortable experience than previously.

With one thing and another, I had scarcely seen either my parents or brother since emerging from the Undercity. Entering the dining room, I was startled by the tenderness on Father's face, the apparent sincerity of his smile--and most especially by the fact that he stood to welcome us. That was a first, and it alarmed me deeply. He simply had to be up to something; but what? After all I'd been through, would I have to endure another confrontation?

Mother fussed over us, of course, as only she could. Despite her advanced years, she dismissed the household staff and served the meal herself, firmly declining my offer to help. Seeing Rae's empty chair, she glanced at me questioningly. In response--mindful of Father's insistence on silence at mealtimes--I shrugged and shook my head, pointing in the direction of Admiral Ehm'rael's home. Apparently, though, that was sufficient: she smiled knowingly and went on dishing out the maxigrazer, while Tom unsuccessfully concealed what could only be an envious scowl. So he knows too…Somehow that thought failed to surprise me. And yes, he did indeed have good reason to be envious.

I felt Father's gaze upon me all through the meal, and when it was over, and Joel and Tom were exiting, deep in conversation with Sah'sell, he stepped up before me. His gaze was friendly, his voice was soft and almost hesitant as he said, "Daughter--Ehm'ayla--may I speak with you?"

Uh-oh, I thought in despair, here it comes! Considering my last discussion with Sah'surraa, I think I can be forgiven for being somewhat leery. But…I realized, all too deeply, that this was literally my last chance to make peace with him. The next day would be frantically busy--and if I didn't speak to him now, I might leave the planet with our difficulties still unresolved. And while he was in good health, he was almost eighty--and accidents happen. And so I said, "Certainly, Father, I have been hoping we could."

He smiled. "Let us retire, then," he said. "Somewhere more private."

We went to the sitting room. Night had fallen, and the windows were dark. The room was illuminated only by a single dangling lantern near the fireplace, making that cavernous space seem almost cozy. Father settled into his favorite chair, and I sat down opposite him, realizing as I did that this discussion was by no means spontaneous. Those two seats, beneath that single lamp, seemed arranged, like a stage setting. To put me at my ease, perhaps? If so, its success was mixed.

Father began quietly. "Dr. Sah'vuul informs me your kits will recover."

"Yes," I said. "Thank the Goddess, they will. Even Ehm'rael's leg will soon mend."

"That is good." He too had noticed my daughter's absence at dinner, and was too shrewd not to have guessed the reason behind it. Probably, though, he would not mention it. "I have heard what Sah'rajj intended for them," he went on. "His crimes were many--but that would have been by far the worst. Had they been harmed, your victory would have been rendered meaningless."

I sifted through that, searching for an implied rebuke, and finally decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. "To protect them was the most difficult thing I have ever done."

"But you succeeded."

Where's he going with this? I wondered suspiciously--which, if you think about it, is actually quite sad. I remained silent, and a moment later he went on.

"In my life, I have had many regrets," he said softly. "Things I have done that I ought not; things I have not done that I should have. Most people my age would say the same, I suspect. But it is only in these last few weeks that I have truly learned the meaning of remorse.

"I wish I could say, daughter, that I never gave up hope; that I never believed you dead. But I cannot. The evidence was compelling; and I had no way of knowing--nor even a reason to suspect--that it had been manufactured. And during those terrible days, my thoughts were occupied constantly by the knowledge that our last words to one another had been spoken in anger. To me, that was nearly intolerable."

I heard a stealthy movement behind me then, and caught a familiar scent, and knew, without having to turn, that Mother had joined us. She took a seat a little distance away, in darkness, and said nothing. Father knew she was there, as well as I did; but he did not acknowledge her presence. "You know me, Ehm'ayla, and I know you. I am used to command; in my long life I have become accustomed to getting my own way. That is part of you as well, for better or worse--and it has taken you far."

I smiled. "Perhaps it has, at that," I admitted. And not only in the Combined Forces…

"And in fact," Father went on, "the only person I have never been able to intimidate is you. For many years this troubled me; I railed against your stubbornness, your unwillingness to see the wisdom of my advice. Only recently have I realized the truth: you and I are too much alike. Neither of us will bend, though at times we may break. This, I know, served in great measure to drive you from Sah'aar."

I looked away. "That may be so."

"I do not wish to denigrate your career," he went on. "In the past it may have seemed that I did--but if so, it was wrong of me. Any career is as honorable, as useful--or not--as the individual makes it. You have the respect of your peers, and of the most honored Combined Forces officer of our species. And mine as well.

"Whatever I might have thought of the choices you made, daughter, I must acknowledge that they were yours to make. I only regret it took me so many years to realize that. Your life is your own; I cannot live it for you.

"And that, finally, is what I wish you to know. As an officer, a scientist and a Sah'aaran, you have my respect and admiration. And as my daughter you have--have always had--my love."

For a moment I sat stunned. It had been many years--decades, even--since I'd heard him speak those words; in fact I had despaired of ever hearing them from his lips again. I rose, and my voice was husky as I leaned down to embrace him. "I love you too, Father."

We clung to each other for a time, his knobby hand stroking my mane. Then he said, "Now, as regards your kits…"

I released him and sat back down, abruptly, my jaw dropping. Had his entire monologue been nothing more than a setup? Just another cheap attempt to soften my resolve, and allow him to keep Tom and Rae here? If so, he could cancel my previous words…

He must have seen the play of emotions across my face, or the way my whiskers bristled. Smiling disarmingly, he held up his hand, forestalling my explosion. "Let me finish, please, daughter," he said. "I know what you are thinking--and for once you are wrong." He took a deep breath. "You yourself said it, when last we spoke: in insisting that they remain on Sah'aar, I attempted to control you through them. And that--I have been made to understand--I cannot do. I have no more right to live their lives than I have to live yours.

"You may be aware that my opinion of your husband has never been high," he went on. "I have never understood how you could find it in yourself to forgive him for what he did--and much less could I understand why you would choose to alter your body, and open yourself to the disdain of our people, to mate with him. I have also greatly feared his influence upon your children. But these last few weeks have given me a new understanding of Joel Abrams. There is good in him, and honor too. He would sacrifice his life to save you and your kits. Indeed, he entered the Undercity not knowing what dangers faced him--but entirely without hesitation. I no longer fear what he may teach your kits; and in any case it is far too late. They are sixteen years old; what they will be, is in large part already formed--by you, and by him. That, no one can alter. Me least of all."

There were many things I might have said at that point, of which "Finally!" was the first that came to mind. But why strain our farm-fresh armistice? "You will no longer seek to keep them here, then?" I asked.

"No," he assured me. "Unless they wish to stay."

"Tom does not," I said. "Of that I am certain. His life and his bond-mate are on Terra. But Rae…she is torn, and after tonight she may be more so. I do not know what she will decide."

"It will indeed be difficult for her," he said. "I know that only too well. I will not attempt to influence her, but I will make this offer. If she should choose to stay, my home is hers. She will want for nothing."

I nodded. "Thank you, Father."

"…And there is one more offer I wish to make," he went on. "You and your husband are committed to see Thomas and Ehm'rael through college; that I know." He smiled. "I still recommend Sah'salaan University, of course; but I will confess there may be other institutions equally worthy. Whichever they choose to attend, I offer my financial assistance. I do not mean to imply that you would be unable to afford it otherwise," he added quickly. "But this is something I wish to do, as I did for your brother's kits. It would please me greatly if you would allow me to do the same for yours. The offer is entirely unconditional; it requires no promises from them. They may study wherever--and whatever--they wish. They need only apply themselves to the best of their considerable abilities."

"I am grateful," I said. "Very much so. But please understand: I can't say yes--not unilaterally. I have to discuss the matter with Joel first. To be honest, we have wondered how we will manage; even with scholarships, the expenses can be alarming. But I'm duty-bound to seek his input--and theirs."

"Of course," he said placidly. "The offer shall remain open indefinitely."

"Thank you, Father."

He smiled. "You are welcome." Abruptly then he stifled a sharp-toothed yawn. "Please excuse me, daughter," he said. "I fear it is near my bedtime."

"Mine too," I said. "Tomorrow will be a trying day, I fear." We stood then, and once again I embraced him--and he did something he had not since I was a small child: holding me close, he licked my cheek, his tongue warm and rough against my fur.

"Good night, Ehm'ayla."

"Good night, Father."

Mother caught me on my way out, and swept me into her arms, her face radiant with happiness. She didn't say a word about what had just transpired; she didn't need to. For almost forty years she had viewed the schism between Father and me with increasing distress, wondering if she would live long enough to see it healed. Now that it had been, no words were adequate to express her joy.

So instead she said, "Please remind your daughter about the holos and manuscript."

I frowned. "Pardon me?"

Her eyebrows rose. "Did she not tell you? Just before the trouble started, I arranged for her to publish a piece in the journal I edit. It shall feature some of her holos of your Point Lobos, and some of her poetry as well."

I shook my head. That little sneak! "No," I said. "She didn't mention it. Maybe being kidnapped drove it out of her mind. Or perhaps…"

Mother's smile widened. "Or perhaps she intended it as a surprise," she said wryly. "Which I have just ruined."

I patted her arm. "Don't worry," I told her. "I can act surprised with the best of them."

###

And then there was Admiral Ehm'rael.

The Abrams family journeyed to her home for lunch the next day. Or I should say that three of us did: the fourth was already there.

She and Sah'majha took us to their garden, one much smaller than--but every bit as lush as--my mother's, and seated us around a large round Tatak table with a floral centerpiece. Sah'larssh served the meal, with Rae's help; and as she worked, trying hard to avoid her father's eye, I gazed at her closely.

That she had spent the night with Sah'larssh I already knew: she had been absent at breakfast, and her bed had not been slept in. That, I'd expected. A more pertinent question might be what had the two of them been up to--and that, I thought I could answer, judging by their body-language and the glances they exchanged. A human parent might have been quite upset at that point--as indeed Joel was, despite my repeated explanations--but I was not. In fact I could only be happy. If we had left the planet with their relationship still unconsummated…all of us would have been miserable.

Rae had indeed changed clothes, I noticed, replacing the previous day's shortalls and T-shirt with a shimmering yellow day-robe and matching collar. Nor was that all. A new item had been added to her ensemble, one we would do well to get used to, because it was considered very bad luck to remove it: a gold anklet, fastened snugly around her left leg, inlaid with diagonal strips of blood-red stone shot with veins of black. Its twin--of course--resided on Sah'larssh's right ankle. My brother, I knew, had helped Tom acquire a similar pair; they were packed in his travel case. I hadn't seen them yet, and wouldn't, until they were in place around his ankle and Ehm'tassaa's. Rae caught me staring, and she smiled and nodded. The ceremony--always a private one--had been performed; she and Sah'larssh were officially bonded.

When we were all seated, Admiral Ehm'rael smiled. "Please forgive me this indulgence," she said. "I know you must be terribly busy--but I feared we would have no other opportunity to speak before you departed."

"Most likely true," I agreed. "Unfortunately." As I spoke I glanced approvingly at the plate that had been set before me. Ehm'rael and Sah'majha had always valued simplicity, and the meal typified that. The meat was not maxigrazer, but Terran beef; a number of sauces and spices occupied a rack near the center of the table. Joel's steak had been broiled--a process which would literally have sickened many Sah'aarans--and from somewhere or other, the admiral had procured the ingredients for a green salad. Seeing that, I smiled, remembering the revulsion I'd felt when I first handled a head of lettuce. Probably Sah'larssh had left that operation to Rae, who was used to it.

I went on, "Indeed, I regret that we had so little time with you."

She waved that aside. "You can hardly be blamed," she said. "Under the circumstances. And in any case, there will be other opportunities."

I quirked a questioning eyebrow, and she smiled. "You will return," she stated. "And I will be here. I have set myself a goal. Having lived long enough to hold your kits in my arms, and see them grow to fine young adulthood, I wish now to live long enough to hold their kits."

The three of them--Tom, Rae and even Sah'larssh--quickly glanced away. "Laudable," I observed. Joel shot me a panicked glance, as if to say exactly how soon are we talking about?--but I ignored that. I still had no idea whether Rae would be coming home with us--she might not have known herself--but she would not be giving birth anytime soon. That I knew for certain.

"Tell me, child," the admiral said, "have you seen Dr. Sah'jinn's proposals for re-inhabiting the Undercity?"

I shook my head. "Not as such," I told her. "He did visit us yesterday, though, and we discussed some of his ideas."

"Last evening he sent me a copy of his proposal," she said. "He desires my input. I must confess I am interested--especially since he has asked me to be part of the process."

"In what way?" I asked in surprise.

She smiled. "He wishes me to be his intermediary in his dealings with Mayor Sah'chass," she said. "And to supervise compliance with his 'open-door' policy. He is most insistent that things be done properly this time, with no taint of secrecy. I am indeed tempted; with my lungs all but healed, I have found time weighing rather heavily on my hands."

I nodded thoughtfully. Sah'jinn had made the perfect choice, I had to admit. If anyone could mollify the civilian government, it would be her, one of Sah'salaan's leading citizens. And her supervisory skills would be invaluable as well, as they had been for countless construction projects over the past six decades. "He is a good man," I commented.

"He is indeed," she agreed. "Do you know who he has chosen as the new leaders?"

"No," I said. "I assumed it would be him, since the plans are his."

She shook her head. "He believes he lacks the talent for leadership, though I tend to disagree. But at any rate, he prefers to remain a physician." She paused. "He has asked Ehm'teel and Sah'raada to serve."

That surprised us all, with the possible exception of Sah'majha. I almost dropped my fork, and Joel, having nearly choked on his steak, took a quick drink of water. "Pardon me?" I said.

"There are many advantages," Ehm'rael said. "To study the Undercity was their life's work, as much as it was Sah'larrah's. And they are certainly no Sah'rajj and Ehm'maana. They lived with us for more than two weeks, while we planned your rescue, and I came to know them quite well. I believe Sah'jinn has made an excellent choice."

"You may be right," I agreed. No wonder they'd been helping the doctor write his proposal, I realized suddenly. And yes, there were advantages. But still, I wasn't sure if I liked the idea of Ehm'teel taking her kits underground, raising them in those sterile grey corridors. And of course Sah'larrah would follow her, as soon as he was able. "It is their choice to make," I went on. "But I fear my objectivity is impaired when it comes to that…structure."

"Understandable," Ehm'rael said. "Which is why they have asked me to extend an invitation to you. If their proposal is accepted, they would like you to return in a year or two, and see for yourselves what the Undercity was meant to be."

"We'll consider it," I said, once again aware of Joel's stare, one of horror this time. Nor--predictably--did our kits look any more enthusiastic.

"Before I forget," the admiral said, "I have a gift for you." She glanced at her grandson. "Sah'larssh, dear, would you please--?"

"Of course," he said. With an apologetic smile at Rae, he rose, freeing his tail from hers, and vanished into the house. Seconds later he reappeared, with a curious--and to me, familiar--object cradled in his arms.

It was a box, about three-quarters of a meter tall and a half a meter wide and deep. Made of dark, fine-grained Tatak, it was varnished to a glossy sheen. The front was divided into two doors, fastened with a simple latch of black iron. At a nod from Ehm'rael, Sah'larssh unfastened the doors and swung them wide. Joel, the twins and I leaned close, and my kits gasped in admiration. I might have too, if I hadn't already known exactly what I would see.

If one were to take the shrine from my father's home and shrink it a hundredfold, the result would be the interior of that box. It was elaborately enameled, in dizzying patterns of red, gold and black. Wire loops on the insides of the doors held a pair of glass votive cups, the candles within them half-burned. And in the very center, atop a platform of red velvet, sat the Goddess Herself. The figurine was small, only about thirty centimeters tall, but as exquisitely formed and detailed as any larger model. The sight of that box took me back more than twenty years, to Admiral Ehm'rael's office on the then-unfinished TCA Outpost Four.

Admiral Ehm'rael smiled at her namesake and de facto granddaughter-in-law. "I am told you have begun to know the Goddess, child."

"Yes, I have," Rae agreed. She reached for Tom's hand "So has my brother."

Tom, looking troubled, glanced quickly away. Despite his recent experiences, he was still having a hard time throwing off his deeply-ingrained agnosticism. (His father's influence, darn him.) "That is well," Ehm'rael said. "Unfortunately, most Terran households do not come equipped with consecrated spaces. And so I would like you to have this." She stroked the box lovingly. "This is my portable shrine; it journeyed with me throughout my Combined Forces career. It was confiscated by Dail Akad on Lands-End; it nearly burned when a log cabin on the colony world Cygnii IV caught fire; and it has been lost in transit several times. But it has always survived."

Rae's eyes widened, and even Tom looked impressed; no doubt they were imagining the places that little box had been. Their wildest imaginings, though, couldn't come close to reality.

"My traveling days are over," the admiral went on. "I doubt I shall make another long journey--save one. Our household shrine serves my needs admirably. This shrine is consecrated everywhere--" she winked-- "even, I fancy, in Pacific Grove."

Rae and Sah'larssh exchanged a brief, troubled glance--and seeing that, a terrible surmise took root and began to grow, somewhere in the back of my mind. Joel, thankfully, didn't seem to notice. "Thank you, Admiral," Rae whispered finally.

"Very much," Tom agreed. "It's beautiful."

"You are quite welcome," Ehm'rael said. "Your mother has instructed you in the proper observances; no doubt you can find a quiet corner in your home…"

"Most certainly," I said. Already I had a spot in mind, an alcove off the stairs on the second floor. We could put up a folding screen…"My kits might not be the only ones making use of it," I added.

She nodded serenely, then reached across to close the little doors and latch them. "I know."

###

Rae walked back to my father's house with us, her gym bag over her shoulder, while Tom carried the portable shrine carefully by its ancient, cracked leather strap. Rae hung back, silent and pensive; and watching her, Joel's scowl and Tom's look of concern both deepened steadily. When the admiral's gate had vanished around a curve in the path, Joel suddenly turned and grasped her arm, bringing her to a stop. Peering deep into her eyes, his hands on her shoulders, he said, "Sweetie…"

So intense was his tone, that she took a step back--or tried to. He held her immovably in place. "Yes, Father?" she said.

He took a deep breath, and I held mine, wondering what he would say. Despite everything, he was human, with human standards, and though I'd tried hard to educate him over the years, he could never truly, viscerally understand what it meant to be Sah'aaran. If he forced Rae to choose between him and her bond-mate, I feared I knew who would be the loser. And she would hate him--and, by extension, herself--for having that decision forced upon her.

But to my relief, he did not--not exactly. "Are you coming home with us?" he asked simply. "Or are you staying here?"

She couldn't hold his gaze; nor, for a moment, could she speak. Finally, her voice barely audible, she said, "I'm staying, Daddy."

Joel reeled back, as if she'd clawed him, and Tom almost dropped the shrine. And me--? My heart sank, and my stomach tightened; but curiously, I felt nothing like surprise. I'd seen this coming: I knew my daughter, and I knew the power of bonding. At this stage in their relationship, one night together would not--could not--be enough.

"Not forever," Rae said quickly, seeing the dismay on her father's face, and her brother's. "Just another few weeks. I'll be back before school starts." She swallowed. "I think Grandfather will let me stay at his house…"

"Yes," I said, "he will." An unwelcome observation, if the look Joel shot me over his shoulder was any indication. He turned back to Rae--and as had so often happened, I could clearly read his mind. Sah'surraa will let her stay--but will he let her leave?

"Don't ask me to understand," he said. "Because I don't. I can't." He sighed, then went on heavily, "But, before you were born I promised your mother I'd let her deal with the Sah'aaran stuff. I have a feeling this qualifies, if anything ever has." He quirked a grin. "And I'm not so dense that I can't see what Sah'larssh means to you. He is a fine young man, sweetie. I know you'll be very happy together--in a few years."

She smiled. "I understand," she said. She paused. "But for now--?"

He glanced at me, and I nodded. "For now," he said, "I can't say no. That is, as long as you promise you'll be home soon."

With the expressed claw of her right forefinger, she made a quick circle around her heart. "I swear."

…But even as he embraced her, I saw the shadow of a doubt darken his face. This time, maybe--but what about next time?

###

And finally there was my brother--and my daughter.

As we rode to the Sah'salaan Terminal the next morning, the little differences conspired to destroy any incipient feeling of deja-vu. Once again it was just the five of us, alone in that private car; once again I was in uniform, and Tom in his traveling jumpsuit. But my son's flowing mane and sideburns were gone, shorn to a fuzz; and, as he sat with his arm around his sister's shoulders, a new maturity lurked in his eyes and in the set of his whiskers, one composed--as is so often the case--at least partly of sadness. This time around, the landscape seemed to hold no attraction for either of them.

Strange, how one's opinions can change. When we'd made this trip--in the opposite direction--more than a month ago, I'd been coldly furious, certain that my father had sent a private shuttle simply to flaunt his wealth and power. But now, belatedly, I understood. Showing off, bragging, was the farthest thing from his mind. He'd ordered the car because, in his mind, his daughter and her family were too important to ride with the common rabble. Shameful, that it had taken me so long to understand such a simple aspect of his personality.

It was done; it was irrevocable. I'd said goodbye to my parents, in the foyer of their home, Father once again hiding his emotions behind a gruff exterior, and Mother--for once in her life--not even bothering to conceal her tears. Our luggage, including Admiral Ehm'rael's gift, had been loaded aboard Cuvier, and that stalwart little ship had been made flight-ready. Admiral McPherson would be glad to get her back; so glad, perhaps, that he'd forget to court-martial me. And now, standing on the shuttle platform with my travel case over my shoulder, I found myself suddenly unable to speak, a sudden rush of emotion having entirely filled my chest.

Sah'sell shook hands with Joel, hugged Tom…and then turned to me, his eyes shining and his voice husky. "Dear sister," he said, holding out his arms.

I embraced him, as close and tight as I could, and from somewhere I found the words to say, "Of everyone on this planet, I will miss you most of all."

"As will I," he said, stroking my shortened mane. "As I have, these many years."

"I wish I knew when I might see you again."

He smiled, holding my hands in his. "It may not be so very long," he said. "Some time in the next few months--perhaps at the beginning of the Terran year--my mate and I will be traveling to Earth on business. And San Francisco is not far from your Pacific Grove, I am told."

Instantly my heart soared. After all this time, to finally be able to show him my home…that was something to look forward to indeed. Goddess, if only the weather will hold… "I will be counting the days."

He nuzzled my cheek, and released me. "As will I."

And then it was time for the hardest goodbye of all. Rae had hung back, sniffling occasionally, as I spoke to my brother; but now she stepped forward. There were no tears in her eyes, but the dark, damp streaks on her cheeks were fresh. She hugged her brother first, and licked his forehead. He seemed shell-shocked, almost uncomprehending, but nevertheless he smiled as he gripped her biceps. "Hurry back, Sis," he said. "We've got to work on that arm."

"I will," she said, and moved quickly on to her father.

"Thank you, Daddy," she said, as his arms closed around her and he kissed her. "It won't be long--I promise."

"I know," Joel said softly. "Not much longer than an eternity." Holding her at arm's length, he gazed into her eyes. "You be good now, you hear me?"

She smiled. "I will."

"…And don't buy the whole Public Market. Leave some for the other people."

"I will take good care of her, Mr. Abrams," Sah'sell assured him. "As if she were my own daughter."

Joel nodded. "I know you will."

And then, finally, it was my turn. Rae looked at me, and I at her--and that suddenly we were both weeping, and in public too. With an effort I pulled myself together. Goddess, I thought, what will I do when she really leaves home? The answer was simple: the same thing, only worse. And it was a day that could not long be delayed. "Our ancestors had a saying," I told her, "'Follow the firelight, and there we will be.'"

She nodded. "I know it," she said. "'And when you hear footfalls in the dark, it will be me.' I love you, Mother."

"I love you, Ehm'rael."

They turned and departed then, arm in arm, my brother and my daughter. She didn't look back; if she had, I think, her courage would have failed. When the crowd had swallowed them, I reached out to grasp Tom's hand. "Promise me something."

"What's that, Mom?"

"No matter what happens to you two," I said, "don't let yourselves be separated for thirty years."

His eyes widened, and he shook his head. "We won't," he said with finality. "Believe me, we won't."


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