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.




"Excuse me if I seem a bit shaken, sir," I told the commpak. "I've never had anyone die in my arms before."

"Believe me, Commander," Captain Thunumm said grimly, "it's not something you get used to." He paused. "And you have no idea what it was all about?"

Mid-afternoon on Lands-End. Bright sun, warm breeze, peace and quiet. Sure. Huddled on one of those puffy sofas with my bed-covering wrapped around me and a cup of hot tea clutched in my claws, I shivered. I had seen death before, certainly I had…but I had never before been close enough to hear the rattle in the back of the throat--nor to witness the exact instant when the eyes cease being the windows of the soul.

"Not a clear idea, no," I said. I gulped tea, and re-adjusted the microphone. "Only that there was some kind of burglary. One of the suspects seems to have gotten away. The other…didn't."

"But you don't know what was stolen?"

"No, sir."

"Were either of them armed?"

"Not that I know of, sir. The police officers did order them to stop…"

"And when they disobeyed, one of those officers shot to kill," the captain said. "Very interesting."

"I've…been wondering if that might have been my fault, sir," I said miserably. "I got in the fugitive's way, and he grabbed at my uniform. The officer may have believed I was in danger…"

"Possible," Thunumm said. "But in light of other things you've told me, I strongly doubt it. What happened afterward?"

"Governor Odyn's bodyguard Akad arrived immediately and took charge. Sah'ahl and I were taken back into the Government Building. Akad wanted to question us, but the governor wouldn't permit it. We were allowed to return to our rooms…"

"This happened three hours ago?"

"Yes, sir."

"And you're just now calling me?" he demanded.

"Yes, sir," I repeated. "I'm sorry, but I was somewhat…discomposed."

There was a pause. Then, "I understand," he said quietly. He paused again, more briefly, and I pictured him shaking his huge head. "I must say I find this extremely disturbing."

"So do I, sir. But as the governor told me, this planet's political situation is none of our business. Or the Alliance's either."

"True," Thunumm said, "but only to a point. Lands-End isn't a member of the Alliance--but they're considering doing business with us. Our government has certain standards…"

"Which were obviously ignored," I pointed out

He sighed. "So it would seem," he agreed. "But no longer."


"Commander, I didn't join the Navy to get rich, or because I enjoy blowing things up." Actually he did, but that was beside the point. "I joined because I truly believe in the things the Alliance is supposed to stand for. Odyn is right: the way she governs her planet is none of our business. But we can damn well demonstrate to our government that they ought not to be dealing with a world which treats a quarter of its population as cheap disposable labor. I don't intend to let this go. Before you leave that planet I want you to uncover everything you can about the relationship between these people and their minority. Everything, Commander."

"Understood, sir."

There was another long pause. Then the captain went on, "There's something else I need to pass along to you. Maybe unrelated; maybe not. That missing construction barge, the Antioch. It's been found. Or I should say, what's left of it has."

I almost dropped my mug. "Pardon me?"

"It appears to have been…destroyed," he said flatly. "Lost with all hands. Less than an hour ago I received a message from the commander of the Patrol cutter Crescent City. He reported finding extensive debris in the Arguello system."

"The Antioch's second-to-last transit point before arriving at Lands-End."

"That's right. Now, it doesn't necessarily follow that they were attacked. As you're probably aware, the inbound hypertunnel node in the Arguello system is uncomfortably close to an asteroid belt. It's a billion-to-one shot against emerging in the path of a big rock…"

"…But even the longest odds are bound to come up eventually," I finished grimly. "That is certainly true." I paused. "And--those construction barges still use the old P-Class fusion reactors," I added thoughtfully. "They've always been prone to pinch-bottle failure."

"Also true," Thunumm agreed. "Which means there's no need to panic--yet. Crescent City's crew is examining the wreckage; Captain Perez will inform me of their findings. But if she was attacked…I don't need to tell you who the prime suspects would be."

"No, sir." But what would they stand to gain…?

"…And if so, then we could all be in a great deal of trouble. Governor Odyn and her government not the least. Er--I would very much appreciate your treating that information as classified, Ehm'rael. For now, at least."

Translation: don't discuss it with your friend the cyborg. "Understood, sir."

A soft chime sounded. "There's someone at my door, Captain," I said hurriedly. "I'll have to sign off now."

"Very well. Stay in touch--"

"--And watch my back. Yes, sir. Ehm'rael out."

Quickly I snatched the commpak from my ear and stuffed it into my pocket. I set down my teacup and rose, casting aside the blanket and smoothing down my uniform. "Come in!"

It was Dail Akad, his arms crossed over his hairless muscular chest and a scowl on his face. Nothing unusual there. He glanced quickly around, as if looking for someone. Had he overheard my conversation with the captain? Fortunately I hadn't let any secrets slip. "May I come in, Commander?" he said.

"If you like," I replied, and he did, letting the door close behind him. Without invitation, he crossed the room and seated himself. I sank back down on the sofa, facing him warily. "What can I do for you, Mr. Akad?"

"'Major', actually," he corrected. "I'm on indefinite detached service from the Planetary Militia."

"Very well then," I said, "what can I do for you, Major?"

"I'm here to discuss this morning's…incident."

I quirked an eye. "Excuse me, Major, but I understood Governor Odyn had ordered that I was not to be questioned."

He spread his arms. "I'm not here to question anyone," he said. "Just to have a nice, peaceful discussion."

"All right," I said. "In that case, I assume the information will flow in both directions. So what actually happened this morning, Major? What did that man do, that he deserved to die?"

Akad frowned. "I'm afraid I'm not at liberty to--" he began, but I cut him off.

"Too bad," I said. "Because that would seem to destroy any further basis for discussion."

He glowered--but it is extremely difficult to intimidate a carnivore. Finally he sighed and glanced away. "Very well," he said. "This involves matters of planetary security, and if I say too much I could conceivably be charged with treason. Suffice it to say that those persons stole some…equipment…from this complex's Science Center."

Interesting. "And the nature of the equipment--?"

He shook his head. "That I can't say. It was, however, extremely valuable and practically irreplaceable."

"Worth a man's life?"

"No," he said flatly. "No, of course not. The police officer who fired the shot was a rookie. He was overzealous, and allowed himself to become too excited. He will be severely reprimanded."

I almost did it; I almost grabbed Akad by the gills and screamed: Reprimanded? For shooting a man in the back, he'll be reprimanded? But that too would have ended the "discussion," and I was not yet ready for that to happen. So--as usual--I channeled my anger into expressed claws and waving tail.

"Who was he?" I asked. "The dead man?"

Akad hesitated for a long moment. "His name was Martin Crane," he said finally. As he spoke he searched my face closely, as if for signs of recognition. He found none; the name meant nothing to me. "He was employed as a Civil Sanitation Worker, Class 3. He is--was--also suspected of being a member of a notorious dissident group. They call themselves the Protectors."

"'Protectors'?" I echoed.

"That was what the Terran government called our keepers--the teachers and technicians who were shipped here with us," Akad explained.

"Meaning that Crane's group favors a return to that arrangement?"

He shrugged. "Who can say? If that is their goal, they will of course never achieve it. They have, however, taken credit for a number of acts of terrorism and sabotage in recent years--some of which have involved loss of life."

"And the woman?"

"Her identity is still unknown."

"Meaning that she hasn't been caught."

"No," he admitted. "Not yet."

"How did they get access to the building?" I asked. Amidst the confusion surrounding the incident it hadn't registered, but I realized later that the clean white jumpsuit Crane had worn during his last minutes was not the same garment I'd seen him in earlier that morning. In fact it most closely resembled that worn by the governor's domestic staff.

Akad shook his head. "That has also not yet been determined," he said. "It seems fairly certain, though, that they must have had accomplices inside. We are searching for them now." He frowned. "And now that I've answered your questions, Commander…"

"…It's time for information to flow in the opposite direction," I finished dryly. "All right. What in particular would you like to discuss, Major?"

He leaned forward intently. "The police officers noticed several odd things in the last few seconds before Mr. Crane's demise. His back was to them, of course, but they had a reasonably clear view of you. They saw what they describe as a look of 'recognition' on your face when Mr. Crane grabbed you."

My claws were already expressed--had been since Akad entered the room--and a good thing too, because otherwise they would have given me away. Why I chose to lie to him I don't know; a matter of principle perhaps. Or maybe I just didn't like his attitude. I gazed at him coldly. "Exactly how many Sah'aarans have those police officers encountered, Major?"

"Other than Representative Sah'ahl and yourself, none."

"Then how is it that they are experts in Sah'aaran facial expressions?"

Akad spread his hands. "Obviously, they are not," he said. "But they saw something, and if not recognition, Commander, what was it?"

"Shock," I told him. "And surprise, and alarm. Is that really so hard to understand, Major? Being accosted like that is hardly something which happens to me every day."

"Assuredly not," Akad said. He paused, still peering at me closely, then went on, "They also report that Mr. Crane spoke several words to you in those last few seconds. They were unable to hear exactly what he said, however. I thought perhaps you could tell me--?"

What did he mean? I asked myself again, for perhaps the five thousandth time in the past three hours. "Don't destroy us," Crane had said; "please don't destroy us." Destroy who? And how? He'd spoken not in anger but in desperation, almost as if he truly believed me capable of the act. Or if not me…For some reason I'd been unable to tell even Captain Thunumm that part of my story. I'd have to eventually--but first I wanted time to think it through.

Exactly how well I controlled my expression, I can't be certain; in retrospect I rather imagine it was "not very." I shook my head. "They were mistaken, Major," I said quietly. "Mr. Crane said nothing."

Akad cocked his head curiously. "Are you absolutely certain, Commander? The officers swore they heard…"

"Perhaps," I interrupted sharply, "what they heard was that boat's engine. Your other suspect took off about then, as I recall."

He stared at me for a time; then he sighed and turned away, shaking his head. That I was lying we both knew perfectly well; but we both also knew that there was nothing he could do about it.

"It occurs to me," he said slowly, "that your government must be somewhat displeased, now that we've decided to consider an offer from the Chrysaoans."

I shrugged. "I don't pretend to speak for the Alliance or the Admiralty," I told him. "But I imagine you're correct--especially since a contract was negotiated and signed in good faith."

"…And it occurs to me also," Akad went on, his tone hardening, "that the Alliance might therefore have a vested interest in destabilizing our government--to replace it, perhaps, with a more cooperative one."

I gazed at him…and burst out laughing. "You find my suggestion amusing, Commander?" Akad asked harshly.

"Your suggestion, no," I said finally. "Your naiveté, yes." I pointed at the ceiling. "Do you know what's orbiting up there, Major? One of the largest battleships in the Combined Forces. If my government were truly interested in 'destabilizing' yours, they wouldn't bother with subterfuge or espionage. They would simply order Captain Thunumm to bomb you into submission. Which he could accomplish within a single orbit. Governor Odyn realized that, the minute she saw Yerba Buena. Fortunately for you, that is not how the Alliance does business."

"So you say," Akad retorted coldly. "I'm afraid we have a hard time forgetting that it is the Terran/Centaurii Alliance."

"The Terran government of two centuries ago treated your people badly," I said. "There's no denying that. But that's ancient history. Yes, Captain Thunumm has asked me to gather information. Governor Odyn knows that too: in the captain's place she'd do exactly the same. Maybe she already has--that might be the real reason why she invited me here."

"Perhaps so," Akad said. "The governor's business is her own. But my business is her security, and by extension, that of this planet. A responsibility I take very seriously, Commander. You'll do well to remember that."

"I shall, Major," I said evenly. "I shall indeed."

"Then we understand each other." He rose to leave; but in the doorway he glanced back. "Oh, one last thing, Commander…"


"The officers also reported seeing you reach into your pocket. You don't by any chance have a weapon you've failed to turn in, do you?"

"Yes," I said softly. I raised my hands, letting him see my claws. "These. You'll find them rather difficult to confiscate, however."

I had the momentary pleasure of seeing his eyes widen, before he hurriedly departed--leaving me feeling worse than before.


"Ehm'rael? Are you all right?"

I woke with a start, to find myself lying curled up on the sofa with the blanket wrapped tightly around me. The sitting room was almost dark, lit only by the fading, fiery glow of sunset upon the ceiling. A shaft of brighter light spilled in through the hallway door, partially eclipsed by a familiar, partly-mechanical form.

"Yes," I told him. I rose, felt my way to the wall, and touched a control pad, bringing up the ceiling lights. "I'm fine. I must have dozed off."

He nodded in relief. "I'm sorry to barge in," he said. "But when you didn't answer the bell, I became concerned."

I smiled, ran a hand through my mane, and rubbed my eyes. "I appreciate that," I assured him. I raised my arms and chuckled. "Sleeping in uniform," I observed wryly. "In some circumstances that's a court-martial offense."

"I imagine your captain would forgive you," Sah'ahl said. He cleared his throat "I came to ask if you're hungry. We never did have that lunch…"

"No," I said. "We didn't." I paused to consider, then shook my head. "No," I said again. "Thank you, Sah'ahl. But I don't think I could force myself to eat. After what happened this morning…"

"Too bad," he replied. He stepped aside, and I saw behind him in the hall a small floating cart, the bottom shelf laden with dishware and a large covered platter on top. "I don't think I can finish all this by myself."

"What in the world--?"

His smile widened as he steered the cart into the room. "Since we never made it to that little café across the harbor, I took the liberty of having them deliver the specialty of the house. I'm told it's very like Terran Dungeness crab…"

He lifted the lid. Piled high and steaming on the platter were at least a dozen large crustaceans, and yes, they did have a certain resemblance to crabs, something I had become quite familiar with in years past. Their carapaces were circular, though, rather than oblong; and they appeared to possess no less than four claws and twelve legs. Whether their bright purple color was natural, or an artifact of being boiled, I couldn't say. I looked, and smelled…and my stomach rumbled loudly. I swallowed a sudden excess of saliva. "Well," I said, "I suppose I could manage a bite or two…"

Sah'ahl winked. "I thought as much. If you'll be so kind as to help me set the table--?"

For a time the room was filled with the sound of cracking, and the mound of clean-picked shells grew steadily higher. Finally, when nothing was left but the lone and level sands stretching far away, we cleaned our hands with damp towels, rose from the table, and collapsed onto a sofa. "It appears," Sah'ahl said dryly, "you were hungry after all."

I grinned sheepishly and patted my bulging stomach. I'd matched him claw for claw and leg for leg, and it's a good thing there were an equal number of each, otherwise we might have ended up snarling over the last scraps like our distant ancestors. "Thank you," I said. "That was delicious. Nostalgic, too. When I was in the Officer's Academy, my friends and I used to take the hydrofoil across the Bay to Fisherman's Wharf whenever we had a few hours' leave."

"I've never had the pleasure," Sah'ahl said. He frowned. "Or at least I don't think I have."

We were silent then for a moment, during which I slowly became conscious of two things: Sah'ahl had moved quite close to me--or me to him, I can't be certain--and I didn't mind in the slightest. When he finally draped his arm around me it seemed the most natural thing in the universe; so too, a few seconds later, did resting my head on his shoulder. Some more rational part of my mind sent up danger signals, but they were entirely drowned out by the purr rumbling up from my full belly. I closed my eyes…

"I had a visit from Major Akad earlier this afternoon," Sah'ahl said finally, quietly, and I stiffened, my purr cut off in mid-thrum.

"Wanting to discuss this morning's 'incident'?" I guessed.

"Exactly," Sah'ahl said. "He visited you as well--?"

I sighed and nodded. "For my sins, yes." I craned my neck to gaze into his eyes. "What did you tell him?"

Sah'ahl shrugged, making my head bounce. "As far as the incident itself was concerned, there was very little I could tell him. I knew nothing other than what I saw, and he already has plenty of witnesses. But that was not what he truly wished to discuss. In fact he seemed much more interested in you."

Big surprise, yes. "Meaning?"

"The major seemed convinced that you were somehow acquainted with the dead man--Crane. And he wanted to know what Crane said to you just before he died. Akad was quite insistent on that point, actually."

Once again I stiffened, right down to the tip of my tail. "What--uh--what did you tell him?"

Sah'ahl shook his head. "To the best of my knowledge," he stated, "Crane said nothing. At least nothing I could hear. That boat's engine was roaring in my ear…"

I relaxed into the circle of his arm, and my purr came back, quietly. "Thank you."

"You're quite welcome," he replied. He quirked a smile. "Whatever I did."

I fell silent again for a time, watching the play of watery reflections on the ceiling, broken periodically by the bright flash of the lighthouse. "I did recognize him," I said softly.

"Pardon me?"

"Crane," I explained. "I didn't know him, but I had seen him, a few hours before…"

I explained the incident briefly. By the time I finished Sah'ahl was nodding thoughtfully. "That explains Akad's 'look of recognition'," he observed. "But hardly Crane's last words."

"No," I agreed. "Nor his reaction when he saw me the first time. It may have been a simple attack of xenophobia…"

"Or maybe not," Sah'ahl finished. He scratched his muzzle absently with a steel claw. "It would be interesting to know what he and his accomplice stole…"

"Very," I agreed. "But we won't find out from Akad. Perhaps Odyn--?"

"Doubtful," Sah'ahl said. "Our dear governor, so friendly and open, can become remarkably close-mouthed when she chooses."

I nodded slowly. I'd begun to realize that myself--and he'd had two weeks more exposure. "Sah'ahl," I said, "last night you told me you admired the way I stood up to Odyn--"

"That is true."

"--And you don't like the way these people treat their minority, any more than I do--"

"Also true."

"--But I assume you were speaking personally. What about your employers? How do they feel on the subject?"

"I imagine they will be…concerned."

"Really? That surprises me."

He chuckled. "Don't read too much into it," he said. "I'm afraid my masters don't think in quite the same way as we do--or as the Alliance itself claims to. Your concern, like mine, is no doubt based on the morality of the situation. We believe that these people, these normal humans, have a natural right to equality."

"Yes," I agreed seriously. "As the Goddess promises."

"Exactly," Sah'ahl agreed. "But my employers' concern is strictly practical. It's easier and more profitable to deal with a stable government. Incidents like the one today will concern them greatly. They will wonder, and rightly too, whether their installation might become a target for sabotage."

"I can understand that," I said. "So--what would they do?"

"They might insist that Governor Odyn get her house in order, so to speak, before construction begins. Unlike your Alliance, however, the Chrysaoans won't be interested in exactly what steps the governor takes to achieve that order. Only that it is achieved--and maintained."

I shuddered, just a little. "And if her house should fail to remain in order, after the installation is built?"

"They might find it necessary to…take steps," he said bleakly. "They're not monsters, Ehm'rael. But they are supremely practical beings. If they make an agreement with the governor, and if she abrogates her part of the contract…they will not be interested in why."

"Did the governor know that, when she decided to consider their offer?"

"Yes," he said. "Yes, I think she did. To be perfectly frank, Ehm'rael, I believe she considered it the lesser of two evils. These peoples' distrust of the Terrans is strong."

"What will your employers do," I said, "if these people decide to accept the Alliance's offer after all?" Or are they doing it already? I wondered darkly, as a vision of drifting wreckage came unbidden to my mind.

He shook his head. "I don't know," he said. "If you mean, would they try to take the planet by force, virtually guaranteeing a battle with Alliance forces…I very much doubt it." He paused, staring off into space. "At least…" He trailed off then, and gave my shoulder a gentle squeeze. "Please," he said. "Let's not discuss that. Not this evening."

He drew me a little closer, and once again I let him do so. "All right," I said. "What should we discuss, then?"

"I was wondering…" he began, and trailed off. He cleared his throat and tried again. "There's so much I've lost," he said. "I've studied, of course, everything I could get my hands on…but it's not the same." He took a deep breath. "I wonder--could you tell me more about our homeworld?"