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.




Slowly and stiffly, with all eyes upon her, Lura Flass drew herself to her full height, her knuckles bone-white upon the handle of her cane. Her somewhat vague eyes scanned the room slowly; then she said, in quiet and shaky tones, "The committee has reached its decision." Words which I greeted with an equal mix of dismay, suspicion and growing anger.

Another morning on Lands-End. This one dawned bright and clear, with no trace of fog and hardly a whisper of wind; by afternoon it would be hot. Not that I actually saw the dawn. I'd overslept, after a late night; and even the tumult accompanying the setting-up of the Public Market failed to wake me. I might have been lingering between the sheets still, if not for the call from a member of Governor Odyn's staff: I was wanted in the conference room, ASAP.

I had barely enough time for a resuscitating cup of tea, never mind breakfast; I hurriedly brushed my mane and fur, threw on my uniform, and dashed through the hallways. Hunger and haste do nothing for my mood, and as I burst through those shell-inlaid doors, my humor closely resembled my claws: black, sharp and deadly.

Fortunately for everyone, me not the least, Sah'ahl was the only one present when I arrived. He sat with his mechanical legs crossed on the table, writing on an oddly-shaped Chrysaoan palm-reader. As he saw me he set the reader aside and rose; and it's a good thing that we were alone, because he greeted me, not with a simple smile and hello, but with a decidedly ardent embrace. From which, rather to my surprise, I made no move to pull away.

"You look rested, anyway," I observed with a smile, as I stood clasping his hands--flesh and metal both.

"If so," he replied wryly, "the Goddess only knows how. I hardly slept at all."


"No," he said. He grinned sheepishly. "Oh, I tried--but I couldn't get our discussion out of my mind."

Neither, for that matter, could I. A "discussion" he called it; but it was really more of a monologue. I'd talked, far into the night, and he'd listened, silent and rapt. I told him everything I could about Sah'aar, most especially about the part of it I knew best: the capital city of Sah'salaan, there in the midst of millions of square kilometers of grassland on the continent of the same name. I told him what it was like to be a kit in that place, and to run naked through the grass on a hot, still, first-summer morning; and what it was like to sit under the shelter of a huge tatak and watch the awesome rains of the Interval come pouring down, an entire year's precipitation in just two short weeks. I told him about my family, my parents and my brother; and finally I told him how difficult it had been to leave them, when the time came for me to journey to Terra and become an officer and a gentlebeing. I still maintained a home there, to which I returned whenever I could; and as I spoke, a wild desire sprang up in me to take him there--and not merely for a visit. And so my sleep had been somewhat less than perfect too, when I finally made it to bed.

"Despite having disturbed my rest," Sah'ahl went on, "I want to thank you. What I told you last night was correct: it isn't the same. My employers supplied me with everything they know about Sah'aar--statistics, holos, videos, history, language, everything. But that's just…information. What you gave me last night was knowledge."

"I'm glad I could help," I said. I hesitated. "The other night you told me that you don't want to visit Sah'aar. Did I possibly…change your mind?"

Slowly he smiled. "Yes," he said. "Yes, I think you did. I only wish it was possible."

At that moment--before I could ask him what he meant--Governor Odyn and her experts arrived, followed by the ever-present Akad; and as she saw the two of us standing there hand-in-hand, the governor winked and flashed a quick, sardonic, knowing grin. Let her; I no longer cared.

…But now, sitting waiting for Flass to continue, I found all such pleasant thoughts driven from my head by a very nasty surmise. Too fast, I thought darkly. I'd dealt with any number of committees during my career, and never had I encountered one capable of making so complex a decision so rapidly. Impossible; unless…

Finally the elderly geologist took a deep breath and went on, her tone curiously flat: "After careful examination of both proposals, it is the opinion of this board that the design offered by the Chrysaoan Hegemony represents the best choice for Lands-End, and we recommend that it be accepted."

"I'm sorry--" Sah'ahl told me softly, in Sah'aaran, but I angrily waved him off. I tried to catch the governor's eye, but her gaze slid quickly away from mine. Guilty conscience, my dear Geeri? I thought savagely. Probably not: that presupposes the existence of the conscience.

"Oh behalf of Commander Ehm'rael and Representative Sah'ahl, I thank the committee for its hard work," she said softly, and without a trace of irony. She smiled at the members in turn, and as she did the heat of my anger increased another few degrees. "You are hereby dismissed."

With that the six of them rose and filed out, like the marionettes they obviously were. Sah'ahl and I stood too, but I made no move to depart; and when Sah'ahl laid a hand on my arm I turned on him sharply. "No," I hissed. "Not a word. Not now. I'll talk to you later--but not now."

He paused, peering uncertainly into my eyes; then he nodded and departed silently. I stepped forward quickly, my out-thrust arm blocking Governor Odyn's path, and my claws scored the door as I slammed it shut, almost in her face. The ever-present Akad took a step forward, glowering, his hand dropping to his weapon; but I glanced at him, baring my teeth, and he stopped in his tracks. "Governor," I said quietly, "we need to talk--"

For a second I thought she would refuse; but then, no doubt seeing the fire in my eyes, she sighed and nodded. "Yes," she said, her eyes downcast. "Yes, I suppose we do."

"--Alone," I added pointedly.

"Very well," Odyn replied. Her gaze shifted. "You're dismissed, Dail."

The major hesitated, eyeing me warily, and Odyn frowned. "I said you're dismissed," she repeated more firmly. "Don't worry--I'm sure the commander means me no harm."

Akad seemed inclined to dispute that, but finally he nodded and left. Probably he would go no farther than the other side of the door; possibly he would listen. Once again I didn't care.

"Let's sit," Odyn suggested, and we did. She took the chair that Sah'ahl had just quitted. She stared at me uncertainly, then drew a deep breath and leaned forward, clasping her hands together earnestly. "Commander," she began softly, "I'm sorry about that incident yesterday…"

I grinned nastily. "Sorry because it happened, or because I saw it?" I asked. She frowned but did not reply. "I'm sorry too," I went on. "Mostly for that man and his family, if he had one. I certainly don't condone theft; but I can't support punishing it with death." I shrugged. "As you told me, Governor, it's none of my business--but what happened here is."

She shook her head. "I'm sorry about that too."

"I'm not the one you should be apologizing to," I told her. "It wasn't my proposal; I didn't draw up those plans. I was sent here to implement them, not to re-negotiate them. I arrived with the understanding that the negotiations were over."

"That's what I thought as well," she told me. "Up until very recently. Please believe me, Commander: I had no intention of being duplicitous. But…things change."

"'Things change,'" I quoted thoughtfully. "Yes, I suppose they do. But I know one thing that has not changed. The Alliance has an agreement, a legally-binding contract, with your signature on it. Evidently that means nothing to you?"

"On the contrary," she said steadily. "It means a great deal. I've never before broken an agreement, Commander, and it hurts me greatly to do so now. But I have no alternative."

"Just two days ago," I said coldly, "you held out the possibility that the Alliance might 'outbid' the Hegemony. Those were your exact words, and if you'd like proof, I can call Captain Thunumm and have him play back the recording. But that was a lie too." I gestured across the table. "What I heard here, not five minutes ago, convinces me of that. Those experts of yours didn't 'carefully examine' the proposals. They simply rubber-stamped a decision already made. By you."

The governor sighed. She rose and stepped out onto the balcony. For a moment she stood silent, looking out over the harbor. Then, without turning, she said, "You don't know the full situation…"

"No," I agreed. "And I don't want to. Please understand, governor: I don't particularly care whether the refueling station is built or not. For me this was simply a job, and the CF can always find something else for me to do. But you've been playing games with my life, and that, I don't appreciate. Not at all."

She returned and sat down again, gazing at me intently. She began to reach out her hands, as if to clasp mine; but then she noticed my claws, and appeared to think better of it. "Commander," she said, "I apologize sincerely if I've given you that impression. I can only ask you to believe: that was not the case. Circumstances have changed greatly since I issued my invitation--almost hourly. When you arrived, there was still a chance that we might accept the Alliance's offer. Since then that chance…has evaporated."

I sighed. "All right," I said. "Enlighten me. What has changed, and how?"

"I…have come to understand what a grave mistake I made, negotiating with the Alliance in the first place," she said bitterly. "You have to understand: we've spent the better part of two centuries in almost total isolation. When the Alliance approached me some months ago, it was our first official contact with your government. I believed that our Constitution gave me the power to conduct the negotiations, and I did so--privately." She shook her head. "I truly thought I was doing a great thing. Prosperity for my world, new job opportunities for our minority, contact with the interstellar community; protection, should we need it…I saw only benefits."

"Why the secrecy, then?"

"I…anticipated opposition from my people," she said. "Because--at least in part--I would be leading them into dealings with the Terrans. I thought it best to give our Legislature a fait accompli; that if I could present them with a package so full of benefits, they would have no choice but to ratify what I had negotiated. And they did, too--barely. I spent a great deal of my political capital achieving that."

"So what happened?"

"Two things," she said. "First, the Chrysaoans unexpectedly presented their proposal. Some members of the Legislature, ones who were uncertain to begin with, began to wonder if we'd made too hasty a choice." She fixed me with her gaze. "And second," she went on, her tone hardening, "a battleship arrived in orbit."

That again, I thought in despair. Captain Thunumm was right: the Admirals should have sent nothing more threatening than a Patrol cutter. Dammit!

"And all of this," I said, "because your people hate the Terrans?"

"Not entirely," she said softly. "That is a factor, yes, among certain segments of our society. But it isn't just hatred. Much more than that, it's fear. To a greater extent than I believed possible. I thought perhaps this might serve to open a dialogue between my people and the Terrans, with some other member of the Alliance as a go-between. Earth has changed greatly since the Alliance was formed; it's not impossible that some kind of apology or reparations might be forthcoming, if the other worlds insisted."

"Perhaps," I agreed. "Certainly it's happened before. I take it your people don't share that belief?"

"No," she said. "They don't. At very least, not enough of them do--as was demonstrated yesterday. By a vote of one hundred fifteen to fifty-five, they nullified my contract with the Alliance. The younger, more progressive members supported me--but there are too few of them. The older, conservative majority is still dead-set against anything which might bring us into closer contact with Terra."

"Why? What specifically are they afraid of? That you'll be enslaved again? Surely they must know how ridiculous that is…"

"Yes," she agreed. "It is, and they do. There may be a very few people on the fringes of society who fear that, but no one in the mainstream. No, Commander, what the conservative element fears is simply this: what might happen if the Terrans discover how we treat our human minority."

"Reprisals, not reparations?"

"Exactly," Odyn said grimly. "Perhaps even an invasion, the Alliance taking over the planet by force. Some even fear that your ship--your Yerba Buena--is the advance scout for that invasion."

I shook my head. "As I told Major Akad," I said, "we don't work that way."

"I believe you," she said. "But many of my people don't, and never will. Akad is one of those--a group which also includes a number of extremely effective demagogues. There's an old Terran saying, Commander; perhaps you've heard it. 'Can't live with them, can't live without them.' That's how my people feel about our minority. They're useful; they do jobs which we don't care to. But at the same time they're a growing danger. And more importantly, they're a reminder. Never believe that we don't recognize the irony of our position: once slaves, now virtual slave-holders. At first it was a situation we relished--but no longer. Even when they're far outnumbered, slaves exert a terrible power over their masters."

I shook my head. "I wouldn't know," I told her. "That's something my people never indulged in."

"Then you are extremely fortunate."

I peered closely at her, and realization suddenly dawned. "You wanted a confrontation!"

"You're almost right," she confessed tiredly. "What I wanted was something to break this terrible status-quo. But I failed. My political career is now dangling by a thread, Commander, and it might be more than I can do to save it. Believe me, I truly regret reneging on my deal with the Alliance…but in the end, it wasn't my fault."

"So you'll be accepting the Hegemony's offer?"

She shrugged. "That does appear to be the way the wind is blowing."

I shook my head in disgust. "Before you make it final, Governor," I said, "let me offer you a point to ponder. If the Alliance decides to enforce their contract, their only alternative will be literally that: force. I very much doubt they'll choose to pursue that path, though I could be wrong. But it will be a very long time before my government is again willing to do business with yours. So you'd better be very certain about getting yourself entangled with the Chrysaoans--because if you ever regret it, the Alliance will not be in the mood to extricate you."

She glanced away, sighed, and nodded. "I know," she said. "But I have no choice."


"If I understand you correctly," Sah'ahl said, "our dear governor blamed her Legislature?"

"Essentially, yes."

He frowned. "I hate to say it, but I'm afraid she was not telling you the complete truth."

I looked up quickly from the remains of my lunch. "Why do you say that?"

He collapsed the clear tray which had contained his meal, and tossed it into a nearby trash can--an action which, though perfectly normal, to me at least was loaded down with unpleasant associations. "There is a some logic to what she said," he admitted. "But only some. These people might have good reason to fear closer contact with the Alliance. But would contact with the Hegemony really suit them better?"

I nodded slowly, peering down at the small protected cove below us, a deep circle of water absolutely seething with amphibian children. All around us the sun beat down, shining up from ocean and sidewalk alike until the very air seemed to shimmer; but the deep shade surrounding us rendered the moist heat almost endurable.

"You remember our discussion last night," Sah'ahl went on. He grinned. "Or perhaps I should say the earlier, less pleasant part of our discussion. My employers are almost certain to demand that something be done about this planet's social instability--and if nothing is, they will do it themselves. That is a fact of doing business with the Hegemony."

I shuddered. "But Odyn has already declared the situation insoluble," I said.

Sah'ahl nodded. "Exactly."

We'd left the Government Building about an hour ago, he and I, for a long walk along the seaside promenade. For me at least that was just as well: I'd had about all I could take of Odyn and her political problems. No doubt Sah'ahl realized that. Hand in hand we'd strolled slowly through the midst of the public market, examining the local handicrafts and observing the many varied ways of preparing seafood. I was not myself in the mood to shop, not really, but one particular item did catch my eye at a jeweler's stall: a small round brooch made of red-and-white coral set in gold. It would have looked stunning affixed to a particular collar which was lying on my dresser back home on Sah'aar. Too bad my Alliance money was no good here.

Sah'ahl's, however, was, as he proved by buying our lunch, using a credit voucher drawn on the Hegemony. Nothing fancy today: from one of the stalls we procured trays of a peculiar fried seafood (it resembled calamari, something I had never been brave enough to try during my days on Terra) and large cups of an icy, refreshing green drink, the origin of which I didn't care to examine. Not far beyond the last stalls of the market we found a bench beside a large building, and there we sat and ate. The food was strange, but good, and once again I found myself much hungrier than I'd expected.

Directly below us lay a sheltered cove, perhaps fifty meters across, fronted by a broad curve of golden-sand beach. A rough breakwater of stones had been built across its mouth, turning it into a calm, deep, crystal-clear pool; and beneath the water's surface perhaps twenty preteen amphibian children were at play. Their game might best be described as an underwater version of that ancient Terran/American pastime, football. It certainly did involve a ball of some kind, a heavy, non-buoyant one, and the objective seemed to be to carry that ball to a predetermined goal through a phalanx of defenders. Nothing terribly strange about that. What was, was the fact that the players never surfaced. On one level that sight horrified me: I could scarcely restrain myself from diving in to save them from drowning.

But on another level it fascinated me, because for the first time I could clearly see how the amphibians' genetically-engineered gills functioned. The children did not so much breathe as swallow: as they darted back and forth across the pool, propelling themselves with their webbed hands and feet, they took in big gulps of water through their mouths and forced it back out through their gill-slits. At each "exhalation" those organs gaped wide, showing the feathery, fluttering, blood-red tissue within. Obviously that sequence of movements was involuntary, as much so as breathing was for me--or indeed for them, when they were out of the water. And obviously too, the uncontrollable, instinctive need to breathe, to contract one's diaphragm and draw air into the lungs, was somehow temporarily short-circuited when these people were submerged. I wondered briefly how that would feel--but then decided I really didn't want to know. Water and I did not get along well.

"In which case," I said, "it seems to me that the governor's safest course would be a return to isolationism." I peered at him sidelong. "If that's possible, that is."

"Absolutely," he assured me. He paused. "My employers sent me here with two things," he went on. "Their proposal--"

"The plans you presented yesterday."

He nodded. "--and a package of materials which I assume to be their offer of payment."

"Of which you don't know the details."

"That's right, I don't," he said, flashing a grin in reply to my aggrieved tones. "When my masters return for me, then the negotiations will begin."

"This time I imagine the Legislature will insist on being involved," I said dryly.

"No doubt," he agreed. "The Lands-Enders can still back out if they choose," he went on, "but that's not the point, I don't think. You were absolutely right, Ehm'rael: from the governor's point of view, she is better off making no agreement at all--with either side. And yet she seems Dark-bent on making a deal with my employers."

I nodded. "She said she had 'no choice' but to do so."

"Which says to me," he went on, "that they have made her an offer she finds impossible to refuse. I don't mean they've threatened her--I mean they've have promised her something extremely valuable in exchange for permission to build their facility. Too valuable to pass up."

"And that might be--?"

"I don't know," he said. "But I can make a very general guess. What would be more valuable to her than a solution to this world's peculiar difficulty?"

I thought about that…and shuddered. How would they go about it? I wondered. We hear so many things about the Chrysaoans…Genocide, perhaps? Forced immigration? Labor camps? Partitioning the planet? Or something else, something beyond my imagination? Whatever else I might think about Governor Odyn and her government, I simply couldn't bring myself to believe that she would condone violence on such a scale.

Finally I shook my head. "Well, whatever it might be, it's not my problem."

"Nor mine," he said. He paused, then asked, "Have you reported the latest developments to your captain yet?"

I shuddered again. "No," I admitted. "Not yet. To tell you the truth, that's a conversation I'm not looking forward to."

"I'm sure he won't blame you. You're not responsible for the governor's vagaries."

"No," I agreed. "I'm not. And no, he can't blame me." I smiled bleakly. "But sometimes, not being blamed by him can be just as bad."

He wrapped his arm around me and drew me close. "Believe me," he said, "I know the type." He gestured at the pool, and chuckled. "Children are the same everywhere, aren't they?" he observed. "At least so I'm told." He paused. "By and large, you know, these are not bad people."

My experience having been limited to Odyn, Akad, a board of well-trained yes-men and a pair of trigger-happy police officers, I was inclined to dispute that…but then I thought back upon the stall-keepers in the public market, and I understood what he meant. They'd regarded the two of us--fur, tails, claws and all--with curiosity, but nothing like fear or hatred. They were the common folk, and like their counterparts on any world, they simply wished to make a living and be left alone. Probably not more than one in a thousand of them knew, or cared, about their government's machinations.

"No," I agreed. "They're not. Just badly-led."

"Perhaps," Sah'ahl said. "Though they might not agree." He gazed down at the tumbling, twisting, darting youngsters. "How graceful they are underwater," he said in wonder. "The adults no less than the children. It sometimes seems to me that if they could, they would remain submerged always. They almost seem to resent the fact that they must surface to eat or communicate."

I snorted and plucked at my day-robe. "Sometimes I resent having to wear clothes," I told him. "We do what we have to."

"Only too true," he agreed sadly.

For several minutes I sat silent, feeling his prosthetic hand smoothing and re-smoothing the fur of my upper arm, more gently than I would have believed possible. Below, the game seemed to have disintegrated into a free-for-all, and the surface of the little cove roiled, tiny wavelets breaking on the sand. I sat, feeling the incipient purr building up within me…and then, for the first time in my career, I deliberately disobeyed a superior officer. Exactly why, I still don't know. "Sah'ahl," I said softly, "why would your employers destroy one of our construction barges?"

He stiffened, and his hand froze in mid-stroke. "I don't understand," he said. "Who says they did?"

I shook my head. "No one yet. But we had two barges headed for Lands-End to build our facility--when we believed we had a deal. One of them vanished, and now we have reports of wreckage from its last known position. It might have been an accident…but if so, it's one Goddess-cursed coincidence."

"I agree," he said. He fell silent, shaking his head. "You'll have to trust me when I say that I know nothing about this," he went on earnestly. "And I can't see any reason why they should--what they would have to gain."

He sounded distraught, but sincere, and I felt myself relax. "Quite frankly," I told him, "neither could I."

"Unless--" he whispered, and trailed off.

"Unless what?"

He shook his head. "Nothing," he said. "A ridiculous thought." He rose, and lifted me to my feet. "I think," he went on with a smile, "I could use another cold drink."


My prayers were interrupted by a most unwelcome call.

True to her word, Governor Odyn had procured for me a folding screen to shelter my portable shrine: a light frame supporting three panels of translucent, pleated pink cloth, and behind it I knelt, naked except for a collar, the room lit only by those two little flickering candles. I had been kneeling a long time, and my knees were growing stiff and sore. That could be ignored. The turmoil within me could not.

Too many things had happened too quickly, these last few days; I'd had too little time for deep thought or reflection. But gradually, inexorably, I had become aware of a feeling welling up inside me. Half-familiar, it had made me wonder briefly if I had somehow miscalculated my biannual fertile period. But no: while that unpleasant event was indeed close--due to arrive in a less than a week's time--this sensation was ultimately different. Something which, by definition, I had never experienced before--not really. Once upon a time I'd thought I had, or deluded myself into thinking so; but eventually I'd been forced to admit my error. Now, though…I could not be mistaken. Not again.

But if I was indeed correct, if this was real…then the Goddess was far crueler--or more capricious--than I'd ever believed possible. Either that or I had sinned in some terrible fashion, unbeknownst to myself.

When I heard the chime from the computer terminal I considered ignoring it; but it was persistent, and finally, with a sigh of frustration, I rose, my knees popping and cracking. I blew out the candles and closed the little doors; I snatched up my new mauve bathrobe from where I'd draped it across the back of a chair, and wrapped it hurriedly around myself. Circling the room, guided in the darkness by the reflections dancing on the ceiling, I crossed to the desk and touched a button. "Yes?" I snapped.

"Commander? This is Major Akad. I have a message for you from Governor Odyn."

Something in his tone caused my claws to express, and my tail began to wave behind me. "Go ahead," I said warily.

"Under the circumstances, Commander," Akad said, clearly relishing every word, "the governor feels it would be best if you return to your ship."

It was as if a giant hand had reached into my chest and squeezed my heart. Somehow I managed to keep control of both my voice and the Terran language. "Why?"

"She feels your presence here no longer serves a practical purpose."

In which, I had to admit, she had a point. "Must I leave now?"

"Oh no," he said grandly. "Tomorrow morning will be quite sufficient. I'll escort you to your pod at seven a.m."

"Understood, Major," I said, and I clicked off. My control had begun to slip, and I could trust myself to say nothing more; even those two simple words were more than half a snarl. I collapsed, and fortunately the chair was there to catch me. I buried my face in my hands and gave myself up to uncontrollable shuddering. Not--certainly not--because of the prospect of leaving Lands-End; if I never saw this watery horror of a planet again, I'd be well satisfied. No: the circumstance which drove me to the brink of despair involved a much higher degree of separation.