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

EPILOGUE


At a bend in the trail, under the dappled shade of a massive old oak, I sat down carefully on a log, my legs and tail dangling on opposite sides. Lifting my face to the sunlight, I smiled, listening to the splashing and laughing echoing up from below. I took a deep and contented breath, and felt not a twinge of pain. Life is still good, I thought. Even at fifty-two, life is still good.

Settling in beside me, shrugging off his too-heavy pack, Joel fished a water bottle from a side pocket and handed it to me. "How are you doing, darling?" he asked.

Taking a grateful sip of the ice-cold water, I nodded. "I'm fine," I assured him.

"Well, keep me posted," he said. "We can cut this trip short, if need be."

"Keep talking like that," I warned, "and you'll have me feeling like an old woman."

"Uh--sorry."

Still, he had a point, I had to admit. I was very aware of my continued need to take things nice and easy. The surgery to repair a hiatus hernia isn't terribly complicated. It had taken the doctors at the Presidio infirmary no more than two hours--and theoretically at least, the polymer mesh which now reinforced my diaphragm would prevent a recurrence for as long as I lived. Not too complicated, no; but it was abdominal (or thoracic; take your pick) surgery--and that is never a trivial matter. It certainly took the wind out of my sails. The scar was minimal, and the fur had grown back to cover it already; the pain was long since gone; but only now, more than three weeks later, had I begun to feel my strength returning. It would be some time before I'd be back up to full speed.

And take it easy I had. Even my pack was no more than a token, a day-bag really, just large enough to hold some clothes and a few other oddments. The rest of my customary load had been split among Joel and our companions. Not surprisingly, they had quickly outdistanced my mate and me, and we'd reached this familiar spot to find their packs leaning against the log, topped by haphazard heaps of clothing. Clawed, four-toed footprints, quite fresh, descended the steep trail to the stream; and that was no surprise either. We could not have kept them out of the water very long, even if we'd been in the mood to try.

The Ventana Wilderness, south of Monterey, is still mostly that--a wilderness--and the strict quota system for hikers keeps it that way. We knew this place, this particular bit of the green world, better than any other: over the last twenty years we had come here often. In my memory those trips blurred together. Looking back, I saw Joel and me, deeply in love but not yet married, or even bonded; then as newlyweds; then a leisurely walk when I was four months pregnant; then again with two furry toddlers running excitedly ahead. And others, too; many others. At each step our kits were a little bigger, a little stronger; and Joel and I were a little slower, a little greyer. Sad to think that there would someday come a last time, a final family hike. Already that day had been rendered inevitable, by an addition to the cast of characters: today, for the first time ever, we were five instead of four.

In the early-autumn sunlight the place literally glowed. A faint golden haze hung in the air, and the leaves were touched with brown; the weather was warm, without the wilting heat of summer. Other than spring--a very different experience--this was our favorite time to backpack in that place

Joel slipped his arm around my waist, and I leaned my head on his shoulder. The shorts and halter I'd dared to don that morning had proven just right--though later, when the sun began to set behind the mountains, I'd need my jacket. The trail followed the course of a stream, cut deep into the granite backbone of the land, densely overhung with oaks and scrub. In spring the creek ran swift and loud; now it was slow, lazy, and shallow, except in places like the one about eight meters below us. There, a thrusting outcrop of granite created an eddy, a hole more than five meters deep, in which the water lay green, still and unfathomable. It was ringed round with boulders, and there was a narrow strip of coarse sand, upon which three towels lay crumpled. The trail down was steep and switchbacked; few humans would have attempted it--but athletic young Sah'aarans are a different matter.

I smiled as I watched them. Two trim brown-furred bodies; one with her mane in a short ponytail whipping behind her head, the other with a bristling orange crew-cut. And a third, whose fur and long braided mane were so black that they appeared to absorb every last photon. As I watched, that latter figure pulled herself up onto a rock, stood poised and streaming for a few seconds, and dove. Ehm'tassaa had been practicing, it seemed: her confidence in the water was all but absolute now. Oddly enough, though, all three of them seemed to have forgotten their swimsuits.

Joel leaned close. "Should we be letting them do that, darling?"

I shrugged. "If you want to climb down and tell them to stop, be my guest." I had no doubt that they were as yet unaware of our presence, and if they chanced to look up, they'd be in for a nasty surprise. Even if I'd thought it worth being upset, though, I was in far too calm and peaceful a mood. They were harming no one, themselves least of all.

"Not really," he said. He chuckled. "It's just a little hard to get used to. Tom and Rae don't have many secrets from each other; I know that. But it's not easy to accept that Tom and Ehm'tassaa don't either, now."

"They are bonded," I said. I pointed to their matched anklets. "And that ceremony usually ends in a particular way. But right now, they're just kits having fun."

"I suppose."

I couldn't blame the three of them for their abandon. In fact I was tempted to throw off my clothes and join them. All of us, to a greater or lesser extent, had something to celebrate that day. For Tom and Ehm'tassaa, a new phase in their relationship, free from well-meaning but misguided interference; for Joel, the return of a beloved daughter; and for me, the cessation of a debilitating and annoying affliction that had gone on far too long. Only Rae seemed less than happy--and for that, she had my sympathy. She'd given Sah'larssh all the time she could, and then some--but in the end, the call of home and family had proved stronger. And if her brother and his bond-mate were making an extra effort to keep her involved, to take her mind off her troubles…I could only be grateful to them. It isn't forever, I told her silently. In just a few more years you and Sah'larssh will be together, for the rest of your lives.

It was almost lunchtime, I saw--an event to which I could once again look forward with pleasure, as opposed to dread. I'd eaten carefully for the first two weeks; but lately I'd grown more adventurous, and had still experienced not the slightest twinge of heartburn. Dr. Sah'jinn's bottle of herbal remedy sat unused in my medicine cabinet. Too bad he hadn't been available to perform the surgery; he was one young doctor I could trust.

Below, the kits had tired of their game--the water was a little too cool to remain submerged in very long--and were lying prone atop the rocks, letting the sun bake them dry. In a very few minutes they would ascend the trail--and they would be ravenous. Later, when everyone was fed, we'd move on--and I had just enough strength, I figured, to reach our favorite camping spot by dusk. Then we'd teach our city-dwelling ambassador's daughter the joys of a night spent under the stars. If, that is, she wasn't too scared to sleep.

Beside me Joel sighed, and I glanced at him. "Something wrong?"

He smiled. "Not really," he said. "Sometimes I can't help thinking about the Undercity. I wonder if Mayor Sah'chass made the right decision, letting them go back."

"I think he did," I said. "Ehm'teel and Sah'raada are doing a good job running the place. And Admiral Ehm'rael is keeping a close eye on the situation." Ehm'teel's kits would grow up knowing their father, and raising them would keep him occupied. Someday, as Ehm'teel had promised, they'd even know their brother and sister. "And Ehm'luruus' official duties have been reduced to emptying trash-cans," I went on. "So that turned out all right too."

Joel grinned and pulled me closer, rubbing my shoulder and bringing forth a purr. I hadn't had the strength lately for certain activities--but the outdoor air is a wonderful restorative. "By the way, darling," Joel said, "I forgot to mention--I got a call from Larry Inman yesterday. The CF is designing a new class of ultra-long-range Survey vessels. And get this: the prototype will be called the Isaac Haliday."

I looked up sharply. "And?"

"And," he said, "they want me to help design the life-support systems."

"You said yes, of course."

He coughed into his hand. "Er--no," he admitted. "Actually I more or less implied I wasn't interested…"

I gazed at him incredulously. "Why, for the Goddess' sake?"

"Well," he said, "it will be a long and involved project, and I'd probably have to make several trips to the Centaurii Shipyards."

"So?"

"So…I've been thinking lately about slowing down. Not taking on so many big projects. So we can spend more time together."

I spoke to him as to a backward kit. "Joel Aaron Abrams," I said firmly, "there is no way my mate is going to turn down a chance to work on a ship named after Captain Haliday. We have plenty of time for each other--fifty years or more. We're both far too young to retire."

A huge smile spread slowly across his face. "Okay," he said, and kissed me. "I love you, Commodore."

"And I love you, Mr. Abrams."

At that moment, of course, the kits came up the trail at lightspeed, towels wrapped around their waists, their fur still half-damp and slicked down. They did not expect to see us, and they skidded to a halt, their jaws dropping. Tom and Rae grinned sheepishly, and Ehm'tassaa shrank back behind them, her ears reddening. "You said it would be an hour at least…" she hissed, and Rae silenced her with an elbow in the ribs.

Tom ran a hand through his cropped mane. "Uh, Mom?"

"Yes, Tom?"

"When's lunch?" he asked. "We're starving."

Joel caught my eye…and we both burst out laughing. Some things never change--and the Goddess willing, never will.


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