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. See the attached file "license.txt" for details.



Odyn whirled to face her bodyguard. "What did you say?"

Akad's jaw tightened, and his hand drew forward slowly to rest on his weapon. "I said 'no,' Governor," he told her firmly. "I'm afraid I can no longer follow your orders."

The color drained from Odyn's face, and she grasped the edge of the desk to keep herself from falling. "I don't understand. You're sworn--"

Behind Akad's stern expression I saw a glimpse of unholy glee--and in that instant I understood both his plan and the part I had unwittingly played in it. "I am sworn to follow the lawful orders of this planet's governor," he corrected. "I can not--will not--be an accessory to the crimes of a self-confessed traitor."

"Traitor?" Odyn gasped. "How dare you--!"

"How dare you?" Akad demanded coldly. He shook his head in disgust--real or feigned, I couldn't decide. "To even consider elevating them to our level. And worse: planning to make them indistinguishable from us, to encourage interbreeding…those alone are the acts of a traitor. But to admit it, even to brag about it…you've condemned yourself with your own words."

"Been waiting for this moment quite some time, eh, Major?" I asked, and he rounded on me with a menacing scowl.

"You," he snarled, "shut up! I hope your Alliance crew and the Jellies do blow each other up. None of you are wanted here. Whatever problems this world has, we will solve--without interference. We've gotten along fine without the Terrans for two centuries; we don't need them now. And God knows we don't need the Chrysaoans--or their damned machines."

Odyn stepped forward, raising her hands in supplication. "Dail, please…"

He shook his head. "Too late," he said. "You should have thought of that when these aliens first approached you. It's too late now." He brought himself to attention, and his voice became clipped and precise, as if speaking words long-rehearsed. "Governor Geeri Odyn," he stated, "as an officer in the Planetary Militia, I hereby place you under arrest on a charge of treason."

She reeled back, as if he'd slapped her; and her pale, delicately-scaled face reddened. "You have no right," she rasped. "No authority…"

"Save your breath, Governor," I said, and she whirled around to stare wildly at me.

"What? Why?"

I sighed and shook my head. "Don't you realize what's really happening here? This is a palace coup." Akad was once again glaring at me threateningly; but I returned his gaze steadily. "That is what this is all about, isn't it, Major?" I glanced at Odyn. "Maybe he really is motivated by patriotism--what he would call patriotism--or maybe he simply wants power. I can't say. But I'd lay odds he's been planning this for a very long time." My eyes shifted again. "And that's also why I'm here, isn't it? I'm going to be an example, paraded through the streets, proof of what the governor was planning to do. Unless this damned thing kills me first. I'm sorry I couldn't oblige you by being human…"

As I spoke, the governor's expression went through a remarkable series of changes. Her eyes widened first in disbelief and horror; then narrowed in suspicion; and finally closed as if in pain. With deep sadness--or perhaps resignation--she said, "Is this true, Dail?"

He glared at her, the muscles at the corners of his jaw working; but she refused to be intimidated, and finally he nodded. "Yes, Governor, it is," he said, his voice curiously mild.

"Why?" she demanded. "For God's sake, Dail, why? Why you?"

He shook his head. "I have no choice," he told her flatly. "I wish it were otherwise. And it isn't just me, Governor. There are others involved--members of my staff and yours; members of the Legislature and other elected officials. We've decided it's up to us to protect this world--to preserve what is ours by right." He cleared his throat. "Neither of you will be harmed," he went on crisply. "That I swear. And you, Commander, will receive the best medical care we can provide."

Thanks a whole lot, I thought sourly, but I remained silent.

"Dail--" Odyn began; but what she might have said, what words she would have launched to shatter uselessly against Akad's impregnable battlements, I don't know; because at that moment we were interrupted--and in a most curious way.

Deep within the building, in that windowless room, I can't honestly say that any of us actually heard the explosion. Even I did not--not really. Rather, we felt it. The entire structure jumped suddenly, as a table will if someone kicks a leg. For an instant the air pressure in the lab seemed to increase, as if a giant hand had taken hold and squeezed. And finally--unmistakably--the lights flickered. That was all; but it was enough. For a few seconds the three of us stood--or lay, as the case may be--looking at each other in mute stupefaction. Then Akad strode across the room and jabbed at the computer terminal.

"Control, this is Major Akad. What the hell was that?"

The reply was typically piping--and on the ragged edge of panic. "Sir, there's been an explosion in the harbor. We're not sure yet, but we think a boat may have rammed the fuel dock…"

My claws expressed instantly, and I fought to keep from crying out. Great Goddess, no! I thought. No, he wouldn't…Or would he? There is nothing, literally nothing, a Sah'aaran will not do to protect his bond-mate…

Akad whirled to face me, and I returned his half-horrified, half-furious stare as impassively as I could. "You," he growled. "This is your doing, isn't it?"

I shook my head. "No, Major," I replied truthfully. "It is not."

He took a step toward me, his fist clenched and rising…but then he stopped in his tracks. He closed his eyes and swallowed hard, and his body trembled violently as he fought to compose himself. At last he turned back to the terminal. "Control, I need a guard up here--"

There was no reply. Frowning irritably, Akad punched keys. "Hello? Control? This is Major Akad, Control, respond!" But the only response was a hiss of static, and finally, growling what sounded like a curse, he slammed his fist down on the keyboard. Grim-faced, he turned. "I must respond," he told Odyn and me. "Governor, you are still under arrest. I am going to lock the door. You will not attempt to leave this room." He nodded at the terminal. "Nor will you attempt to communicate with anyone--though that doesn't appear to be a problem just now. Do you understand?"

Pale, but poised, Odyn nodded. "Yes, Dail," she said softly. "I understand."

"Good," Akad said. He turned to depart--but as the door opened for him, he took a sudden, stumbling step backwards. I looked up sharply--and a shout of joy was torn from my throat.

Sah'ahl stood in the doorway, smiling broadly, his artificial mane wild and unbrushed, his day-robe becoming grimier and more ragged by the minute, his prosthetic hand raised and the first two fingers stiffly extended. "You!" Akad gasped, scrabbling frantically for his weapon.

"Yes," Sah'ahl agreed. "Me." With the speed of a striking cobra his hand descended, those two digits pressing into Akad's broad chest. There came a crackle and a blue flash, and the major collapsed like a rag-doll, his pistol still undrawn. Beside me, Odyn jammed her knuckles into her mouth to stifle a scream. My bond-mate gazed at me, and the look on his face suddenly made all my pains worthwhile. "Someday," he remarked thoughtfully, "you must even the score by rescuing me."

"Sah'ahl!" I cried, and had the straps not prevented it, I would have flown across the room into his arms.

I expected a flippant response, something along the lines of "In person!" or "Did you miss me?" But it was not forthcoming. Instead he asked, simply and quietly, "Have they harmed you?"

"No," I assured him. "Not permanently."

"Thank the Goddess." As yet he had made no move to leave the doorway; he held the portal open with his arm, and he glanced repeatedly over his shoulder into the hallway. Why, I had no idea.

Odyn was gazing horror-struck at the fallen Akad. "Is he--?" she began fearfully.

"No, Governor," Sah'ahl told her. "Merely stunned. I am not a murderer."

"I…don't understand," Odyn went on, glancing from her bodyguard to my bond-mate and back again, with huge and fearful eyes. "What are you doing here? How did you get into the building?"

"I'll tell you how," I said grimly. "He programmed our boat's autopilot to drive it full-speed into the harbor. That was no 'accident.'"

One shock too many: Odyn almost fell as her knees buckled beneath her. "You did what?" she shrieked.

Sah'ahl nodded calmly. "I'm afraid Commander Ehm'rael is correct, Your Excellency," he said. "I truly regret the damage I have done, and I hope there was no loss of life. I can only ask you to believe that it was not my intention to strike the fuel dock. But what I did was necessary--and the destruction is nothing compared to what will occur if this planet becomes a battleground." He flashed a sudden grin. "As to how I got into the building, however…there I cannot take all the credit. I did have a little help."

With that he stepped away from the door, but continued to keep it open with an outstretched hand. I heard a clatter of approaching footsteps--too loud and insistent to be those of a barefoot amphibian--and a slim figure dashed into the lab, an epiphany which caused both the governor and me to gasp in astonishment. Wearing patched green trousers, rough shirt and heavy black boots, with her long red hair in a tight coil at the back of her head, Linda Rochelle had a monstrous pistol in her hand and a grim, determined look on her face. Sah'ahl allowed the door to close behind her, and she grinned briefly at him. "I got the comm node," she told him. "The entire net should be down now." She glanced around shrewdly, taking in the situation…and when her gaze fell on me, her eyes widened suddenly. It was the first time I'd ever seen her surprised. "Dear God," she muttered. "So that's what the damn thing is…" Then she shook herself and smiled crookedly. "Long time no see, Commander."

Behind her, Sah'ahl was frowning at the door panel, punching buttons; finally he nodded in satisfaction and straightened. He crossed the room then, stepping over the prostrate Akad and ducking past the frozen, slack-jawed Odyn. His hand brushed my cheek gently, comfortingly, as he knelt down beneath the table to unfasten my bonds. He nodded across at the major. "May I inquire what exactly has been happening here?" he asked of no one in particular.

There was a brief awkward silence; evidently the governor was too shell-shocked to speak. I sighed. "First of all, my mission failed…"

He chuckled, and the band around my chest tightened briefly as he struggled with the hidden buckles. "Of that, I am well aware. Go on."

"Well, basically speaking, our friend Akad just attempted to take over the government. He started by arresting the governor for treason."

"Did he indeed," Sah'ahl said. Curiously, he didn't sound particularly surprised. "That is extremely interesting--given that he himself is a traitor."

Odyn was sitting on the floor now, cradling Akad's head gently in her lap; she looked up so sharply I feared her neck would snap. "What do you mean?" she demanded.

Lounging beside the door with her arms crossed over her chest, Linda cleared her throat. "That's what I came here hoping to tell you, Governor," she said. "Let's be clear on this: I'm not particularly fond of you or your government. But I'm even less fond of being double-crossed." She nodded down. "Which is exactly what that bastard was planning to do."

"I don't understand--" Odyn began, but before either Sah'ahl or Linda could reply, I surprised myself by speaking up.

"Akad has been aiding the Protectors," I said. Even as I spoke, the pieces were tumbling into place, one after another with lightning speed. Of course, I thought. We should have known… The "skeleton key" that had gotten me into the building--surely something which could not be casually pilfered. The nearly-miraculous fact that the Protectors were able to keep their platform hidden from the Militia. Frank Rochelle's inexplicable knowledge that I'd been ordered off the planet. It all added up.

"You're right, Commander," Linda agreed grimly. "Not overtly, of course. Secretly. I still can't absolutely prove that he's responsible. But Sah'ahl and I have discussed this, compared notes, and neither one of us doubts our guesses. Akad has been ordering his people to ignore our platform, even when they know exactly where it is. He's also been feeding my people information, some good and some not so good, through various stooges and stoolies. He let us steal that thing--" she indicated the gill with a wave of her hand-- "and he allowed us to get hold of the disks which let us into your rooms that night." She shook her head and snorted in disgust. "Frank takes credit himself--for establishing contacts in the government and the military, and for getting our agents into this building as part of the domestic staff. The great General Rochelle, master of strategy. Stupid dumb clod."

"To what end?" Odyn asked. "Why would Dail do any of those things?" But Linda merely gazed at the governor in pity and disbelief, and then turned away, shaking her head and muttering. Distractedly, still at work on my bonds, Sah'ahl took up the story.

"Several reasons, Governor," he said. "First and foremost to make the Protectors more powerful." He paused. "Ah! There we go!" he cried in satisfaction as the strap across my chest suddenly released. He reached up to peel the band away, then continued his explanation as he continued his work. "Temporarily, I hasten to add. It is my belief that he intends to destabilize your government…"

"We already know that," I put in.

"Of course--forgive me. And emboldening the Protectors would be an excellent way to accomplish it. In the eyes of the general amphibian public they would seem an imminent danger: fanatical terrorists with whom no agreement or accommodation can possibly be made. Thus strengthening the calls for extermination."

"And," I added thoughtfully, as the band around my waist snapped free, "when he did finally strike, using his accumulated knowledge to destroy them, he would make himself a hero, the savior of his people."

"Precisely," Sah'ahl agreed.

"I've tried to tell Frank that," Linda said in despair. "A thousand times. But he won't listen--his ego won't let him."

Odyn nodded tiredly. "I understand," she said. She looked at me. "It appears you were right, Commander: he has been planning to supplant me for a very long time."

I gazed at her curiously. She seemed more disappointed than angry, and she continued to cradle Akad's head tenderly. Could it be--? "I'm sorry," I told her. "I truly am."

Sah'ahl had removed the remaining straps by then, and with his help I sat up. A sudden wave of dizziness warned me not to attempt to stand--not just yet. Embarrassed, I covered my nakedness with my arms, and I glanced across at Linda. "See if you can find me something to wear, would you?" I asked. She nodded, holstered her pistol, and began a quick--and messy--search through drawers and cabinets.

Sah'ahl extended his arms, and--though this was scarcely the time or place--I let myself be drawn into them. Resting my forehead against his chest, closing my eyes, I realized suddenly how terribly hungry I was--not to mention sore and exhausted. Not yet the end, I thought in despair. Not yet. "Are you all right, darling?" Sah'ahl whispered softly in Sah'aaran, and I smiled and replied in the same language.

"I will be," I said. I paused. "How--uh--how did she get here?"

"I called her," Sah'ahl explained calmly, in Terran. "Night before last, while we were en-route to the capital. You were asleep in the cabin. Our course took us very near the Protector's platform--as I intended."

"And I was manning the radio room," Linda said over her shoulder, as she continued to search. "I do that a lot when I can't sleep--which is most nights, any more. Sah'ahl and I had quite a talk--and in the end I agreed to shadow your boat here. We met last night, after you headed for the tunnels."

"Why?" I asked. "Why did you call her?"

"Two reasons," Sah'ahl told me. "And I apologize for not telling you sooner. I did not wish to complicate your task--you had quite enough on your mind already." He glanced aside. "First--I feared your mission might fail. Not because I lack confidence in you, but because the situation involved too many variables. It seemed likely that I would have to make an attempt myself--and for that, I would need help from someone more experienced in such matters. And second…I wished to clear my name with the Protectors." He turned to Odyn. "Your Excellency, I did not kill those men who came to abduct me. Your bodyguard did. Possibly to turn you against my employers--though it appears he was unsuccessful in that--or possibly because he feared what they might say if they were allowed to talk. The ease with which they entered the building would certainly have indicated inside help."

"Heads up," Linda said suddenly, and tossed me a small dark-blue bundle. As I shook it out she flashed a grin, seeing my sour expression, and even had the audacity to wink. "All I could find," she assured me.

What I held was another of those damned tight-fitting bodysuits, unused as yet and still child-sized. This one seemed to be of slightly heavier material than my last; it had short sleeves and short legs, and a wide black elastic belt around the waist. "It'll have to do," I replied. "Thanks." I made the necessary alteration with a claw-tip, quickly and roughly, and then I clothed myself. Doing so left me unexpectedly breathless; the sore spot between my breasts seemed to be spreading, and drawing a deep breath was like inhaling a wire brush. Worry about it later. Finally then, hanging on to the edge of the table, I stood. The room did somersaults, but my legs held me.

Waving off Sah'ahl's proffered arm--I couldn't afford to appear weak--I addressed him quietly but fiercely, in Sah'aaran. "I'm not very happy with you, darling."

He looked startled. "Why?"

"The boat. The harbor. The fuel dock. Things like that."

He nodded tiredly. "I am sorry," he said. "But I had no other choice…"

"Yes you did," I snapped. "There's always a choice. That was your employers' native ruthlessness at work--whether you care to admit it or not." I held up my hand, stopping him before he could protest. "But we'll discuss that later." I gazed from him to Linda and back again. "What now?" I asked, switching to Terran. "I assume you have a plan for getting out?"

They exchanged a glance. "Er--no," Sah'ahl admitted. "Our primary plan was to reach your pod, and that is what we were attempting to do. I had little or no hope that we would find you ourselves; I intended to enlist the aid of your Captain Thunumm. But then…"

I grinned. "I know," I said. "You followed your nose."

He matched my smile. "My ears, in this case," he said. "I overheard your conversation with the major."

I nodded grimly. "All right," I said. I knelt down and stripped the weapons from Akad's belt. His pistol felt alien in my hand, almost threatening; but to grasp the custom-molded grip of my own stinger was pure joy. I clipped it to my belt. I offered the pistol to Sah'ahl, but he shook his head.

"No," he said. "I…cannot."

I paused. "I understand," I told him. I turned to Odyn. She had arranged Akad's limp form comfortably, his legs straight and his arms at his sides; and she stood now with her back to the desk, gazing at the three of us warily. "Governor, where exactly are we?" I asked.

"Third floor," she said, "north section."

Which told me, all things considered, very little. Unlike Sah'ahl, I didn't have the building's floor-plan memorized. "Where would Akad have stashed my equipment?"

She frowned. "Probably in the safe in his office," she said. "First floor, east section."

I shook my head. "Too far," I decided. "And in the wrong direction. Is there a way onto the roof close by?"

"Yes," she said. "There's a service stair and a hatch two corridors to the south."

"Exactly where Mrs. Rochelle and I were headed," Sah'ahl put in.

I smiled and nodded. "Good," I said. "That gives us a fighting chance." I looked around. "Right now, most of this building's guards are probably occupied down at the harbor. I say we take advantage of that. Comments? Objections?"

Linda grinned tightly and drew her weapon. "I'm with you," she said.

Sah'ahl raised his metal hand. "And I, of course."

"Thank you," I said with a smile. "I'll need you both, I'm sure." I turned. "You're coming with us too, Governor."

She drew back, startled; then she laughed hollowly. "As a human shield, Commander?"

"No," I told her with a mocking grin. "To save your miserable butt. You heard what Akad said: there are others involved in his conspiracy--including members of your own staff. You have no way of knowing who you can trust--if anybody."

Sah'ahl nodded. "Ehm'rael is correct," he said. "I do not know how much faith you should place in Akad's assurances that you will not be harmed. Very little, Terran history would suggest. Remember the Romanovs."

Odyn stood silent for a time, her face buried in her hands. Finally she sighed and looked up. "I have no desire to be the head of a government in exile," she said grimly. "But even less do I wish to be imprisoned or killed. Will your Captain Thunumm give me sanctuary, Commander?"

I nodded. "Under the circumstances, yes," I said. "I'm sure he will."

She nodded. "All right then--I'm with you too." She glanced down at Akad's pistol, which I still clutched distastefully. "May I?"

Linda stirred, and seemed on the verge of objecting. Ignoring her, I gazed deep into the governor's turquoise eyes…and handed her the gun. Linda shook her head in mute disapproval; then she sighed and turned away. She nodded at the prostrate form of Akad, still out for the count; she kicked his leg, but he did not stir. "What about Laughing Boy here?" she asked.

I grinned. "Let's give him a taste of his own medicine."


The third-floor corridors were deserted--almost.

Leaving Dail Akad behind us, bound to the chair and gagged with a roll of gauze, the four of us made our way down the dim hallways. My footsteps were silent, and not much clumsier than usual, despite the rapidly-growing fringe surrounding my toes. Sah'ahl's padded footfalls were not much noisier. Odyn's wide webbed feet made only a faint slapping sound on the hard floor--and so too did Linda's normal-human models: my erstwhile kidnapper had removed her boots, hanging them by their own laces over her shoulder. Being in possession of our only non-lethal weapon, I took the point, while my bond-mate--our other pair of Sah'aaran eyes and ears--brought up the rear.

Glancing back at the two very different women jogging behind me, glaring distrustfully at each other, I couldn't help but smile. Politics really does make strange bedfellows, I thought. And: I wonder what Frank would think, if he could see his wife now? Unlike him, Linda was a pragmatist: she knew when to abandon idealism for expediency. What must it have been like for her, to know that their people were being manipulated--but at the same time to be utterly unable to do anything about it? How many arguments did she and Frank have; how many sleepless nights did she spend alone in the radio shack? Truly, a most reluctant revolutionary…

And Geeri Odyn herself. So certain that she was doing the right thing, she had never even suspected the existence of the conspiracy that was growing all around her, reaching--if my suspicions were correct--even into her own bedchamber. Would she ever be able to root it out sufficiently to ensure her safety? Or had Akad--with me as his unwilling agent--utterly destroyed her administration? Who did the common people trust more, him or her? Do I even care?

The answer to that question, surprisingly enough, was "yes." Having met both amphibians and normal humans; having learned that there was (as always) an equal amount of good and bad in both groups; having come to understand the conflicts that divided them…I truly hoped they would someday find a solution, something other than the blunt-force trauma proposed by the Chrysaoans. But whatever it might turn out to be, it was beyond my skill to engineer.

As I said, the hallways were deserted--almost. We encountered the sole exception a little more than halfway to our goal, at the intersection of two major corridors. A young woman, a member of the Militia, she stood with her back to me and her hand on her sidearm. Did she support Akad, or the governor? Or was she entirely apolitical, content to put in her eight hours of guard duty and then swim home to her husband and kids? I'll never know, because I didn't ask. Lifting my arm, bringing my comrades to a halt behind me, I silently drew my stinger, took careful aim, and fired. The discharge caught her in the side, and without a sound she slumped. On the way past I paused to arrange her limp body more comfortably--and to silently apologize. I guess I'm not the stuff soldiers are made of.

We located the stairwell without further incident, but before we started the ascent Linda paused to put on her boots, barefoot stealth no longer being needed. I didn't grudge her the time, though, because I was seriously in need of catching my breath. As I leaned against the banister, panting hard, Sah'ahl laid a hand on my arm. "Ehm'rael," he said quietly in Sah'aaran, his face full of concern, "what will be my reception aboard your battleship? Will I be a guest--or a prisoner?"

I stared at him, stricken, the hot pain within my chest momentarily forgotten. In my anxiety to reach my pod, that question had simply not occurred to me. He is a representative of an unfriendly government, I reminded myself. But on the other hand, he'd risked his life to help me warn Yerba Buena. Surely that counted for something… "Guest," I said finally, and with as much certainty as I could muster. "I'll vouch for you--and Captain Thunumm will listen to me. Of course you'll have to do your part…"

Sah'ahl smiled. "Keep my hands to myself, my eyes closed and my mouth shut," he said wryly. "I think I can manage that. But…what then? What happens when my masters arrive to claim me?"

I looked away. "I don't know," I admitted finally. "But--If being with you means joining them…I can't. In your case it was different. They rescued you, put you back together, retrained you, employed you. Of course you had good reason to be grateful to them. But if I went to work for the Hegemony--if they would even accept me--I would be a traitor to everything I believe in. It's inevitable. They would want information; they would want me to tell them everything I know about Alliance technology and Combined Forces defenses. And I can't do that. If I did, it would mean never being able to go home again…and I couldn't endure that."

He nodded and clasped my hand. "I'm sorry," he said. "Sorry I brought it up. There's still time--perhaps another alternative will present itself."

Such as? I wondered in despair. But I forced myself to smile. "Perhaps so."

"Whatever happens," he said softly, "I want you to remember--I love you, Ehm'rael. Always."

Startled, I looked up into his eyes. "I love you, Sah'ahl," I heard myself say; and to my amazement I realized that I truly meant it. He had finally become more than my bond-mate: he was my soul-mate too, now and forever. The Goddess help us both.

A few steps above us, Linda had finished lacing her calf-high boots. "You cats ready?" she asked with a grin.

I glanced at Sah'ahl and smiled ruefully. "Ready as we'll ever be," I told her. "Let's go."

It was a short ascent, up a set of dusty, unadorned metal steps which rang hollowly under Linda's heels. The stairs ended in a ladder, and above that our way was blocked by a metal hatchway about a meter square, secured by a keypad lock. Linda drew her pistol, and I truly think she might have attempted to shoot the lock off--but we were spared that noisy and dangerous expedient when Odyn reached past me and tapped on the keyboard. A second later the panel beeped, the hatch popped, and she smiled. "Apparently Dail didn't have a chance to cancel my access codes."

"Thank the Goddess for small favors," I puffed. Cautiously then, stinger at the ready, I climbed the last few rungs, raising the hatch with my left hand and exposing my head to the level of my eyes. Quickly I glanced around.

Dawn had not yet arrived, but the eastern sky had begun to flush red, banishing the stars one by one. To my left, no more than two meters away, lay the southern edge of the building. To my right a vast expanse of flat roof extended to the north, its outline broken by the angular silhouettes of vents, air-conditioning units, and suchlike. Farther away--fifty meters, perhaps, though it was hard to tell--a long, slim wedge stood firmly on three skinny struts. At the sight of it my heart began to hammer, and I swallowed hard, fighting an impulse to collapse backwards into Sah'ahl's arms. Still there, I thought in relief. Now, if Akad hasn't broken in and destroyed the controls

For perhaps a minute I remained still, slowly scanning the rooftop. Occasional whiffs of some acrid odor, only half-noticed, tickled my nose, and I resisted an impulse to sneeze. Predawn light is tricky--even for normal Sah'aaran eyes, which mine no longer were--and the rapidly-growing brightness of the sky made it impossible for me to make out details. But it seemed that the roof was indeed entirely deserted. If any guards had been stationed around my pod, they must have responded to the disaster down in the harbor. In fact they may well have been the first to report it. I ducked my head back down into the stairwell. "All right," I said. "It's still there, and it's not far. Let's make this quick."

Throwing the hatch wide, we clambered out onto the roof. Weapons drawn, Linda and I fell into a crouch, slowly circling, alert for signs of movement, listening for a shouted challenge--but none came. I glanced to the left, over the edge of the roof--and what I saw shocked me to the bone. I ought, of course, to have been seeing the bright lights of the harbor; but if they were indeed present, they were entirely obscured by a thick pall of roiling black smoke, lit by occasional flashes of orange-red flame. Fortunately the stiff offshore wind was carrying most of it out to sea. From somewhere below I heard voices, shouting orders; the intermittent thud of detonations; and the deep thrumming of what could only have been water-pumps. I turned toward Sah'ahl--but the angry words died on my lips when I saw the tears in his eyes. Where we came from, crying is shameful; he looked away quickly, and so did I. What's done is done, I told myself. And he was right--a whole lot more than a few boats will be destroyed if the Alliance and the Hegemony start tossing missiles at each other.

In silence then, the four of us began that final fifty-meter dash. Less than a quarter of the way there my chest began to burn again, and spots formed before my eyes; but I clenched my teeth, drew the deepest breath I could, and kept going. I am not going to pass out! Not now--not until we're safe.

We almost made it. Almost…if I had been able to force myself to run faster; if Linda had not taken so long to tie her shoes; if Odyn had made up her mind to join us a little sooner; if I had thought to disarm the guard I'd stunned…But no: that way lies madness. What happened in those last few seconds is engraved upon my memory, my heart, and will live as long as I do. That's enough.

Dawn was breaking, and we had almost reached our goal--I could read my pod's registration number, and almost feel the hatch controls beneath my fingers--when the Dark Ones struck, swiftly, capriciously…and lethally. Out of breath, my lungs on fire, I stumbled, dropping to my knees--and that almost certainly saved my life. Even as I fell I heard a muted pop…and an instant later a patch of roof less than a meter to my right exploded. A shower of hot chips stung my bare arms and legs. Leaping into a crouch, scrabbling for my stinger, I spun, seeking the source…and finding it, froze. Akad.

He stood near the open hatch, sharply outlined in the first light of the new day: legs spread, eyes narrowed, teeth bared, sighting down the barrel of the pistol he held in both hands. His chest and arms were lacerated, bloody--and seeing that I realized with wild amazement that he had torn himself free from his bonds. For a fraction of a second I stared into the crimson face of Death…but then, abruptly and incredibly, the muzzle of the gun swung away from me. "Governor, look out!" I shouted--too late. Even as my warning rang out, Akad pulled the trigger. But by then Sah'ahl was already in motion.

He launched himself at Odyn like a springing tiger, his outstretched hands slamming into her back, sending her sprawling out of harm's way. But as his body arced through the space hers had occupied an instant before, the whizzing projectile grazed the back of his skull…and exploded.

I heard myself scream, felt the tearing agony in my throat. Akad's weapon jerked toward me, but he never got the chance to shoot. Leaping in front of me, Linda Rochelle fired from the hip, three shots in rapid succession--and every one dead on target. The bullets struck Akad in the chest, the throat and the thigh, and their simultaneous detonation threw him backwards in a haze of blood, his pinwheeling body vanishing down the open maw of the hatch.

And Sah'ahl… thrown clear of Odyn by the explosion and his own momentum, he hit the rooftop hard on his right shoulder, skidded several meters, and--as I watched helplessly, unable to move, unable to breathe, unable to think--began to tumble, over and over and over, his limbs flailing loosely, sunlight glinting from his prosthetics. After an eternity he came to rest, face-down; and in the last few seconds before sanity fled I saw the smoke rising from his burned and shredded false mane.