Copyright © 2001 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.




"Just once," Dad remarked, "I'd like to make it through a security checkpoint without having to invoke your mother's name."

With a start I turned away from the window; from that amazing view which had grabbed me by the collar the moment we entered our quarters. "Sorry," I said contritely.

He paused in his unpacking, quirking an eyebrow at me over the lid of his travel case. "Why are you sorry?" he asked with a smile. "It's not your fault, God knows."

That was kind of him to say--but if we were to be honest, we both knew that it was--at least in the broadest sense of the word. Alone, he would have sailed through, his B-level civilian clearance giving him access to almost any part of the Fabrication Center and the Shipyard both. But with me in tow…well, the scene we'd endured, not ten minutes before, might be a good case in point.

It was a play with three characters; or four, if you count the CF Security guard--a Centaurii--who hovered balefully in the background with her red cockatoo's crest stiffly erect and her hand not quite resting on her stinger. Picture if you will, a fifty-four-year-old human male, his full beard and thinning hair mostly grey; behind him a seventeen-year-old Sah'aaran male, too awestruck to really know what was going on; and, confronting them from behind the tall solidity of a high black counter, a red-haired and frowning Navy lieutenant, twenty-five or so and very aware both of his authority and (as it turned out) its limits.

"Look," Dad said in growing exasperation, "We've been over this a dozen times already. My name is Joel Aaron Abrams. I'm a registered CF contractor, working on the Isaac Haliday project. This is my son, Thomas Sah'surraa Abrams. He is my assistant. You have our security clearances, and our ID's check out. So what exactly is the problem?"

The lieutenant pursed his lips, and smoothed the front of his already-immaculate dark-green uniform. "I am sorry for the inconvenience, Mr. Abrams," he said, sounding anything but. "However, this is a top-security installation, and it is my duty to question anything out of the ordinary. In my opinion, this qualifies." His small dark eyes shifted. "Let me make sure I understand clearly," he went on. "This is your son?"

"Yes," Dad said firmly, laying a land on my shoulder. "He is. And frankly, Lieutenant, the details of my family life are not the Combined Forces' business--nor yours."


"Nevertheless nothing," Dad interrupted. Reaching up to the counter, he flicked my brand-new clearance badge. "What officer authorized this?"

The lieutenant peered down. "Commodore Ehm'ayla," he quoted, not mangling the pronunciation too badly.

"That's right," Dad told him. "Now, as it happens, she is this young man's mother--and, I am proud to say, my wife. Now, shall we contact her and discuss this, or--?"

He trailed off, gazing fixedly into the younger man's eyes. It was a threat that usually worked: my mother had a reputation throughout the CF. I can't say whether this particular officer knew who Commodore Ehm'ayla was or not--in fact I'm inclined to think he didn't. But a few seconds later he blinked, glanced aside, and handed back our badges. "I don't imagine that will be necessary, Mr. Abrams," he said smoothly. "Welcome to Centaurus Minor."


"So tell me," I said, as I placed clothes into drawers with a tidiness that would have astounded my mother, sister and bond-mate, "what would you have done if he'd taken you up on it--calling Mom, I mean?"

Dad grinned and scratched his bare, tanned scalp. "Good question," he confessed. "Seeing as how she's halfway across the Alliance by now. I suppose we would have sat down and waited while they hyperzapped her."

I shook my head. At that moment my mother--and my sister--were aboard the SV Hueneme, somewhere between one hypertunnel and the next on their way to Quadria. "Tracking her down" by hyperzap would have taken several days, at least. "Good thing he didn't, then," I said.

"They never do," Dad said cheerfully. He closed his suitcase then and crossed the room, draping his arm across my shoulders. Together we regarded the view. "So," he went on, "what do you think of Centaurus Minor?"

"It's…incredible," I said, struggling for adjectives. "Fantastic."

And it was: incredibly, fantastically different from anything I'd ever seen before. It was nothing like the majestic blue sweep of Monterey Bay that greeted me every morning; nor even the endless rippling gold savanna of Sah'aar, the only other world I'd ever visited. It was, I suspected, nothing like any other world in the Alliance; and even in the middle of the night--which would last for another several days--the view, floodlit by the brilliant emerald crescent of Centaurus half-risen above the jagged horizon, had a nearly infinite capacity to captivate.

As such things go, Centaurus Minor might not have been the best place to plant a colony. In fact the Centaurii astronauts who first landed there, four or five centuries back in the early years of their Space Age, probably regarded the world as a choice slice of Hell--or whatever they call their theological place of punishment. But as Dad is fond of saying, "Needs must"--and these days Minor is home to a fair number of settlements, ranging from rough-and-tumble industrial sites to semi-comfortable domed cities. I doubt, though, that it will ever become a major tourist attraction--most especially not for the Centaurii, who much prefer the warm depths of a semi-tropical forest to a dry, bleak, wind-swept desert.

Technically speaking, C. Minor is a moon; it circles Centaurus in an orbit a little more than twice that of Luna around Terra. But it is much, much larger than Earth's satellite: a full fifty-three percent the size of its big sister--large enough to support a thin, cold atmosphere, carbon dioxide and nitrogen mostly. Like Luna, Centaurus Minor is tidally locked, and its rotation is such that its nights--and days too--are almost three Terran Standard months long. Which means that while half the planet is giving up its warmth to space, with virtually nothing to stop the radiation, the other half is baking under the blazing, all-but-unfiltered light of Proxima Centauri. And that has a particular--and uniquely awesome--result. Titanic dust storms, with sustained winds of three to four hundred kilometers per hour, ride the terminators--the dividing lines between day and night--slowly sweeping across the planet like permanent floating hurricanes. Smaller storm cells follow the noon and midnight meridians. If the atmosphere was thicker, the suspended sand would tear apart anything in its path--and as it is, any structure that is to stand in the face of the storm must have an extremely low profile, or have a surface that is very hard and resistant to abrasion. Preferably both. Artificial diamond--though still incredibly expensive--is a favored facing material.

As I said, Minor is not a place where many people, Centaurii or otherwise, would live by choice--but it does have its uses, mostly as a place to park those industries that the tidy-minded Centaurii would just as soon remove from their homeworld. The constantly-churning sands are chock-full of minerals, just waiting to be scooped out by the gigantic, fully-automated mining machines that wander the surface, pole to pole; and with no native life-forms of any kind, not even bacteria, pollution is scarcely a major concern.

…Or so my father had told me, during our voyage from Terra. At the time I'd been far too excited to take much notice--but now, staring down at that astounding view, I finally began to appreciate what he'd gone to such lengths to explain--and to understand why the CF had chosen to locate such an important facility in such an unlikely place.

The Centaurus Shipyards, where Dad spent many years of his Combined Forces career, and from which more than half of all CF vessels emerge, circled Centaurus Minor in a geosynchronous orbit, several thousand kilometers above our heads. What lay before us now, occupying perhaps twenty square kilometers in the midst of a bowl of yellow dust ringed by jagged orange hills, was technically a subsidiary operation--but a very important one. Within (and below) that sprawling cluster of translucent domes, hundreds in all, components as diverse as prefab lavatories and fusion-drive cores were assembled, tested and stored--and, when needed, were flung into orbit by a titanic mass-driver, whose exit was marked by a tiny glowing ring halfway up a mountainside far to the south. It only makes sense, I suppose, to place a factory close to the source of raw materials; and for certain manufacturing procedures, gravity (even half a standard G) is far more convenient than freefall. The domes, connected by a silvery spiderweb of pressure tunnels, were low-slung and inscrutable. Some glowed with their own internal light, while others, apparently inactive, reflected the grass-colored gleam of Centaurus. How deep beneath the surface they burrowed I didn't know; a considerable distance, I guessed.

Our guest quarters lay some fifteen floors up the Administration Building, the official headquarters of both the Shipyard and the Fabrication Center. A narrow, wedge-shaped spire, fifty stories tall, it would have been impossibly fragile on Terra--and indeed, it seemed far too spindly to endure the winds that would accompany the dawn. But it had, of course, many thousands of times, and would continue to do so--I hoped. The Fabrication Center dominated the view from our high, east-facing perch; but in the distance--some five kilometers, though it seemed closer in the clear thin air--I could just make out the lights of a sizable city, a cluster of domes and towers known as Discovery Valley. Hopefully we'd get a chance to visit.

"It is incredible," Dad agreed. He chuckled. "Oddly enough, I never visited here while I was stationed at the Shipyards."

"Never had the time?" I guessed, and he shook his head.

"Never had the inclination," he said. "I guess I was too influenced by my Centaurii colleagues' description of the place."

I'd seen a slightly wistful look on my father's face, as we'd passed through the Shipyard's shuttle bay on our way here; and I knew that he, like me, had wished for a closer look--though for a very different reason. Unfortunately, it didn't seem likely that we'd get one. The ship we were here to see didn't exist, not really--or rather, it did, but only in the imaginations and on the computer screens of its many designers.

"Dad," I said, without turning, "are they going to let me into the meetings?" I fingered my clearance badge, clipped as conspicuously as possible to the lapel of my jacket. "After what happened down in the lobby…"

"They will," he promised. "That lieutenant was just being a little…overzealous."

Inwardly I grinned: that, as I knew very well, was in Dad's lexicon a synonym for "acting like a jerk." He went on, "Or I should say they'll let you into most of them. Your mother was only able to arrange a D-level clearance. You'll be prohibited from seeing anything to do with propulsion or the central computer core."

"And weapons?"

"Survey vessels don't have weapons," he reminded me, and I nodded sheepishly. I knew that--or at least I ought to, having grown up listening to Mom's stories.

"Our main concern is life-support, though," Dad was saying. "And those briefings are open even to E-levels."

"Meaning who, exactly?" I asked.

He flashed a grin. "Reporters."

I chuckled. Nice to know I'm one step ahead of the press anyway…

Dad clapped my shoulder. "I don't know about you," he said, "but my stomach is telling me it's way past lunchtime. Let's find the mess hall, shall we? --And I'll treat my assistant to the biggest steak they've got."


My clearance got me into the Officer's Mess--only just.

The Administration Building had two main dining areas, it seemed. One--somewhere on the lower levels, if not actually underground--served the enlisted personnel (or "grunts," as Dad called them.) The other, at the very peak of the tower, was reserved for officers--and was, by courtesy, also open to civilians with a D-level or better clearance.

"Meaning they're keeping the reporters out," I commented, during the long--but amazingly rapid--elevator ride. No drop-shafts here; the distances involved were simply too great.

"Exactly," Dad agreed. "Though it's not considered polite to point that out."

I smiled. "Why would they, though?"

"There's an old saying," he said dryly. "'Loose lips sink ships.' You never know what they might overhear."

As if to prove his point, there was a Security officer on duty at the door, another Centaurii, standing there in his black tabard with his hand on his stinger and his tail-feathers against the wall. As we entered, he stepped forward to examine our badges. Dad returned his suspicious, beady gaze blandly--and silently--and I tried hard to follow that good example; but I seemed to be having some trouble controlling my claws and tail. As he peered at me the ensign's beak opened, and he seemed on the verge of saying something. For a horrible moment I feared we'd have to mention my mother's name just to get something to eat; but then, without a word, the guard backed away and returned to his post. He wasn't satisfied--obviously not--but apparently could think of no valid reason to harass me.

"That's beginning to give me a complex," I whispered darkly, as we crossed to the autokitchen wall.

"Don't take it personally," Dad advised. "After all, they don't get many teenage Sah'aarans around here."

I shook my head. My clearance was supposed to make me a VIP--I was, after all, walking where better than ninety percent of the Alliance's population was forbidden to tread--but with all this scrutiny, I felt at best an MIP--a Marginally Important Person. Dejectedly. Feeling about five centimeters tall, I trailed after my father.

The room I found myself in was fairly large, maybe ten by twenty meters, and had a high, arched, softly-glowing ceiling. The front wall was all glass, floor to ceiling--well, something transparent, anyway. Needless to say, the view was extensive, far more so than that from our quarters thirty-five stories down, and impressive--though my astonishment circuits had begun to overload a bit. The autokitchen machinery--the menu screens, the keyboards and the delivery chutes--lay to the rear, as did the disposal slots, the racks of utensils, and the trays of condiments. Scattered around the wide, beige-carpeted floor were a number of tables, of various sizes and carrying capacities. Despite the fact that my stomach (and my wrist chrono, which I hadn't yet reset) kept insisting that it was nearly noon, the local clocks claimed it was past fifteen hundred, and thus the hall was nearly deserted. Of the dozen or so present, most wore CF uniforms, of beige, green and black; but there were a few sets of "civvies" present too, and that made me feel better, less conspicuous in my white shirt, and black trousers, jacket and collar. As might be expected, a high percentage of the diners were Centaurii, and despite everything my mother had tried to teach me, I found myself staring. Other than Mom's old friend Dr. Zeeleeayykk, I'd seldom had much to do with the Alliance's other founding species. Thinking back, in fact, I could remember meeting only two or three others. Apart from two Quadrians and one Xerxian, the others were human--and needless to say, I was the only Sah'aaran present. As usual.

"They've started to arrive," Dad said, taking note of our fellow civilians. "I'll probably be seeing some familiar faces soon."

The selection computer was simple enough to use, much like the one at my school cafeteria; and the database did contain a fair number of Sah'aaran dishes. I wasn't in the mood for anything exotic, though, and I settled for the largest New York steak available, raw. Yes, raw--is that a problem? And a cup of coffee too, please. Dad also ordered coffee--for him, that was a given--and a huge plate of salad. After many years of practice, the sight of all those greens, drenched in balsamic vinaigrette, didn't actually turn my stomach; but I did experience a tiny, involuntary stab of revulsion. It's a carnivore thing.

We took our trays to a small table near the windows, and for a few moments we ate in silence. For an ersatz, cobbled together out of base protein with artificial flavors and texture, my steak was actually pretty good--but the coffee, as I'd more than halfway feared, was terrible. Unfortunately there wasn't much I could do about that, other than endure.

"Glad you came?" Dad asked with a smile, and I grimaced, nodding down at my mug.

"Yes and no."

He chuckled, took a sip of that wretched brown fluid and shook his head. "I see what you mean."

Even a week ago, the idea would have seemed ludicrous, impossible. A week on Centaurus Minor? Yeah, sure. Ehm'rael and I had just completed our junior year of high school, and were preparing for a summer jam-packed with our usual activities: baseball, backpacking, swimming, kayaking, rock-climbing, surfing, golf and tennis. A solid schedule, with hardly a moment to spare; designed not only to keep us physically fit and out of trouble, but also to serve as a distraction: to keep our minds off the fact that our bond-mates were both far away. Sah'larssh, a little against his will (he loved Rae but disliked Terra) would be visiting--but not until later in the summer. And my lovely blackfur Ehm'tassaa was spending June and part of July on Sah'aar with her mother. For humans, so it's said, absence makes the heart grow fonder; for Sah'aarans, it mostly leads to thoughts of suicide. Even baseball could not have carried me through those six terrible weeks.

In such circumstances, as my mother often says, the Goddess will provide--and about ten days ago, She had come through big time. The messages arrived almost simultaneously: first, that Dad was needed on Centaurus Minor for several days of meetings relating to a ship he was helping to design; and second, that Mom had been called to Quadria, to attend a conference on the future of a certain colony world with which she was intimately familiar.

At seventeen, Rae and I were certainly old enough to take care of ourselves; but that thought had entered no one's mind. The few days that followed were frantically busy, full of packing and other arrangements; but somehow, thanks mainly to Mom's organizational skill (and considerable influence) it all came together. She and my sister left first; the journey to Quadria would take a week, and they would pass through almost a dozen hypertunnels. In contrast, our trip--my father's and mine--had required less than ten hours; but then Centaurus is right next door to Terra, so to speak, a single hyperjump away. Similarly, Dad and I would be home long before Mom and Rae--or so we believed.

"So," I said, "what's on our agenda?"

Dad smiled. "Tech briefings," he said. "Starting tomorrow morning. I imagine they'll begin with a general overview, a get-acquainted sort of thing. That's typical. Later, they'll break it down into smaller groups, focusing on various aspects of the project. This is all extremely preliminary, you understand: sorting out who will be designing what, heading off any turf battles and misunderstandings. It will be several years before the actual construction begins."

I sighed. "I know."

He smiled. "You're the one who begged to come along," he reminded me. "If you get too bored, I imagine we can arrange some sort of diversion…"

I shook my head firmly. "Not a chance," I said. "I'm your dedicated assistant, remember?"

His smile widened to a lopsided grin. "We'll see."

At that moment we were interrupted. The voice was human, male, and rough at the edges; it spoke softly and rather hesitantly, right there at my elbow. "Commander…Abrams?"

Dad and I both looked up sharply. The man who stood there--who had managed, somehow, to get within a meter of us without alerting my Sah'aaran ears--wore a light-brown Ops uniform, a little too large for him and somewhat wrinkled. He was not tall--several centimeters shorter than Dad--and was slightly built, almost frail looking, His features were even and unremarkable, his complexion pale, and his eyes dark brown--though that last was hard to tell for certain, because he squinted constantly, as if either nearsighted or photophobic. His wavy brown hair was liberally frosted with grey, even though--at a guess--he was only in his mid-forties. He stood with his hands clasped behind his back and a sheepish, apologetic expression on his face. But what caught my eye immediately was his rank stars--or rather, his almost complete lack thereof. A grey-haired lieutenant j.g.? I thought in disbelief. Was he the oldest Officer's Academy grad in history, or what? For some reason my claws had begun to express, and I dropped my hands into my lap. My tail was less easy to conceal.

"You're half right," Dad said evenly. "My name is Abrams--but it hasn't been 'Commander' for almost twenty-five years."

"I knew that," the man said. He flashed a tiny, morose smile. "Force of habit, I suppose." He paused. "I imagine you wouldn't remember me, sir," he went on. "My name is Mayer--Albert Mayer."

Dad's eyebrows rose. "My God!" he said in disbelief. He rose and extended his hand; and hesitantly, almost fearfully, Mayer clasped it. Over his shoulder Dad explained, "Lieutenant Mayer was one of my engineers aboard tha--er, aboard Raven." He'd almost said "That Ship," his--and Mom's--euphemism for a word neither of them liked to utter. "He was an ensign then--fresh out of the Officer's Academy." Dad waved his hand. "Please, sit down."

Mayer did, a little awkwardly, and Dad extended a hand toward me. "Lieutenant, this is my son Thomas."

Mayer gazed at me, as if seeing me for the first time. His vague, watery eyes widened in surprise, and I felt my stomach drop. Here we go again, I thought darkly. But if he intended to ask, he apparently thought better of it. "Pleased to meet you," he said, and I made polite noises in return. He didn't offer to shake hands--which was just as well, because under the table my claws were fully expressed. Why, I didn't know.

"What brings you to Centaurus Minor, Comm--Mr. Abrams?" Mayer asked softly.

"Call me Joel," Dad suggested. He smiled as he said it, but I heard the undercurrent of irritation in his tone: he was never comfortable being reminded of what he called "ancient history." He paused, then went on cautiously, "I'm working on a Combined Forces contract." It seemed strange that he wasn't more specific; but he caught my eye and shook his head slightly, and I bit back whatever I might have said.

Mayer nodded. "I'd heard you were doing well," he said. "I even heard that you'd married that Sah'aaran who was aboard Raven for a while. What was her name--?"

"Ehm'ayla," Dad supplied. He spoke evenly, but for some reason he looked startled.

"That's her," Mayer agreed. "I wasn't sure whether I believed that or not." His gaze shifted. "But I guess it was true after all."

"Yes," Dad said. "We've been married for twenty years now. She became a commodore some months ago."

"Did she really," Mayer said. He swallowed. "Is she… with you?"

"No," Dad said. "She had some other business to attend to." He hesitated, and I wondered if he'd noticed the strange gleam that had suddenly appeared in Mayer's wandering eyes as he asked about Mom. Probably; Dad noticed everything.

"What about you, Lieutenant?" Dad asked. "What have you been up to?"

Mayer's smile fell. "I've been stationed here since my promotion," he said. "About ten years now. I'm assigned to the mass driver team--a Payload Specialist."

From the look in my father's eyes I could clearly read his mind: A twenty-five-year CF veteran is a glorified cargo handler? But he kept his voice and expression carefully neutral. "That sounds…interesting."

"Will you and your son be staying long?" Mayer asked.

"A few days."

Mayer glanced at his wrist chrono, and rose gracelessly. "I'm on duty in a few minutes," he said. "It was nice to see you again, Comm--er, Joel." He nodded at me. "And nice to meet you, Tom. Perhaps I'll see you again before you leave."

"Maybe so," Dad said noncommittally. "Nice to see you too, Albert."

Mayer shuffled off. In silence we watched him go, first to the autokitchen, where he dialed up a cup of coffee; and then out the door. And as that skinny shambling figure disappeared down the corridor, Dad growled, "Bastard!"

I looked up quickly, and was astounded to see that his jaw was clenched and his eyes were blazing. I hadn't seen him that angry since someone threatened to kill my sister. "Who, him?" I asked in astonishment.

"No," Dad said. He took a deep breath. "The so-called Captain Antilles. If there truly is a hell, son, I sincerely hope he's enjoying it. He has a lot of ruined lives to answer for."

"I don't quite--"

He waved a hand. "Tom, that wreck who just left here was one of my best engineers, and a top-notch landing-pod pilot. Bright, articulate; Johnny-on-the-spot, as they used to say. Graduated seventh in his class. Before that whole damned situation blew up in my face, I was trying to get him promoted straight to full lieutenant--he was that good. And he knows your mother's name--or at least he used to. He helped me search for her, when she was lost on Hellhole. And now look at him."

"You think that ship did it to him?" My parents' distaste for that name had rubbed off on me, it seemed: like some horrible obscenity, I couldn't bring myself to pronounce it.

"What else?" Dad said. He glanced at me; or, more specifically, at my hands, which I'd lifted to the surface of the table as soon as Mayer was out of sight. "Why the claws?" he asked with a smile.

I shook my head. "Don't know," I said. Now that he was gone, they had finally begun to relax, those eight sharp black crescents vanishing back into the fur. "Something about him just gave me the creeps."

Gazing thoughtfully at the mess-hall door, Dad nodded. "Yeah," he said. "Me too."


"Dad? Can I ask you a question?"

We were sitting up on our beds, my father and I, with our pillows bulked behind us and palm-readers in our laps. Dad's contained work--or so I assumed, from the way he frowned over it, jotting notes and quickly paging back and forth. Mine was a murder mystery; but then I was only the assistant, not the engineer.

The accommodations we'd been provided weren't bad; comfortable, functional and quite clean and tidy, if a bit Spartan. I'd been in far worse hotels. The main room--which functioned as bedroom, lounge, office and even dining room--was about five meters deep and four wide. To the left, as one entered, were the two beds, separated by a meter of floor. According to Dad, they were identical to those found aboard the more recent CF vessels. In between was a small, squat night table. Directly across stood a dresser, a small desk with a pull-out seat and a data terminal; a large threevee screen flush-mounted into the wall; and a small round table with two chairs. There was also an autokitchen slot, with a limited menu; beverages, snacks and breakfast items mostly. A narrow door on the right-hand wall led into the small, very utilitarian bathroom; I was almost tempted to call it the "head." Across from that was a small closet, which would have held about a fifth of my sister's wardrobe--maybe. Walls and ceiling were grey, and the short-pile carpeting was burgundy. A few framed holos of Centaurus landscapes, scattered more or less at random about the walls, completed the "decor."

Dad glanced up smiling from his palm-reader. "Of course," he said. That was my father: no matter how busy he was, I (or my sister or my mother) could always command his instant and undivided attention.

I hesitated, searching for words, then said, "Does it…bother you, being here?"

We'd spent the rest of the day exploring, to the limit of our security clearances. I can hardly begin to describe the things we'd seen: gigantic domes, under which huge engine components were assembled by armies of pressure-suited workers; smaller shops, where the latest in holo-dome control consoles were constructed and tested; drafting labs, where CF engineers, clustered before large monitors, discussed arcane and incomprehensible matters. It wasn't a tour, hardly even a scratching of the surface; the Fabrication Center was truly immense. But even that small sample was enough: by the time we returned to the Officer's Mess for a late dinner, I found myself in a state of serious sensory overload, my mind reeling from everything I'd seen and heard. After the meal I'd been glad enough to retire to our quarters and rest my aching feet, eyes and brain. Over the next few days, as more and more of Dad's fellow contractors arrived, no doubt there'd be evening gatherings, cocktail parties and so forth; whether I'd be invited to any of them remained to be seen.

"No," Dad said in surprise. "Except for being away from your mother, of course. Why should it?"

"Well," I said, waving a hand over my head, "because we're surrounded by the Combined Forces." And because of Mayer, I added silently--but I decided against voicing that thought. For some reason I was reluctant to mention that strange individual's name.

He nodded in sudden understanding, and quirked a brief, sardonic grin. "It could be argued," he said, "that I surrounded myself with the Combined Forces the moment I married Commander Ehm'ayla." He paused. "But if you don't mind me rephrasing your question, what you're really asking is if I regret resigning my commission."

"Uh--yeah," I admitted. "I guess so."

He set aside his palm-reader and leaned back, staring up into space. The lights were turned low, save for the reading lamp on the wall above the night-table, and we hadn't bothered to opaque the windows--there seemed little point in doing so. A galaxy of multicolored lights, reflected from the domes below, shimmered and danced across the ceiling, punctuated at regular intervals by the bright green-and-white flash of the navigation beacon at the shuttle port.

"On a certain level," Dad said finally, softly, "of course I do. It's been almost twenty-five years--but not a day goes by when I don't feel a tiny twinge of regret. But as to whether visiting a CF installation makes it worse…I don't think so. As I said, I had to come to terms with that a long time ago. I couldn't very well avoid attending your mother's office parties at the Research Center, or receptions at the Presidio. I'd closed a chapter, and that was that."

"I understand," I said. I hesitated for a long moment, gazing out at the night; then went on, "Dad? Why did you resign? I know the facts, of course," I added hurriedly, "from what you and Mom have told me. but I've never really understood. I mean, sure, the court-martial convicted you, but the punishment was nothing, a slap on the wrist. You might even have commanded a ship eventually…"

"That, I seriously doubt," Dad said without rancor. He smiled. "Surely you and your sister must have formed an opinion or two--?"

"I suppose," I said. "I guess we've always believed it had something to do with Mom."

"She was a major factor," Dad agreed. He spoke softly, matter-of-factly, as if he was discussing some other person; and maybe, after all that time, in a sense he was. But at very least he showed no signs of anger or irritation, and that was good. "I'd betrayed her, and our friendship, in a way I feared she could never excuse. I thank God daily--and I mean that literally--that she was finally able to forgive me."

"I guess I should too," I said wryly. "I wouldn't be here if she hadn't."

"There wouldn't be a Sah'aaran named Thomas Sah'surraa Abrams, that's certainly true," Dad said. He took a deep breath. "But to be honest--she was only a part of it. Mostly…well, you haven't attended the Officer's Academy, but I think you can understand the paradigm there. Above and beyond all else, the Academy trains people for leadership. They intend--and they tell you so, your first day there--for each and every cadet to someday command a vessel. As it happens, less than one percent ever will; but that doesn't stop them from trying. And without a doubt, the number-one qualification for leadership is confidence. A commander must believe in his subordinates, of course; but above all he had to have confidence in himself. He has to be able to make decisions immediately, without hesitation, and stick to them." He flashed a grin. "Correct decisions are of course preferred. But if you lose confidence in yourself…you're done for. You hesitate, you second-guess…and that can be fatal--quite literally. For a captain, certainly--and even for a Techspec. Ships have been lost because of a moment of indecision on the part of a chief engineer--even unarmed Survey vessels on entirely peaceful missions."

"And that's what happened to you?" I asked. "You lost your confidence?"

"Yes," Dad said heavily. "Completely. I'd always had a tendency to doubt myself, and after Raven…well, I could scarcely avoid the realization that I'd made a number of extremely bad decisions. I was truly afraid I'd become dangerous, to myself and to any ship I might be aboard."

"I understand," I said--though (to be honest) a lack of confidence has never been one of my problems. My mother's genes at work. "But didn't it occur to you that it might be temporary? And weren't there other alternatives? Less stressful assignments you could have taken, until you recovered?"

"Certainly," Dad said, "in retrospect. Yes, it probably was temporary. And yes, there were other places I could have gone. Commodore Ehm'rael--as she was then--offered me a position on her personal staff, bless her generous heart. But…well, I don't know how clearly I can explain, after all this time. The fact is, there and then I couldn't conceive that it would ever get better. The load of guilt I'd been saddled with…staying in, toughing it out, didn't seem to be an option. Maybe it was presumptuous of me to override Admiral Conroy's decisions--he thought so, anyway--but I truly didn't believe I deserved to wear the uniform any more. My CF experience felt…tainted. Permanently and irredeemably."

I glanced away. He was right, of course: I couldn't appreciate what he'd been through; not really. But guilt, crippling, guilt, that I did understand--most definitely. Only a year ago I'd spent two weeks trying to cope with the near certainty that I'd killed my sister. The fact that it had proven untrue doesn't change what I'd felt. "Sorry I brought it up," I said.

"Don't be," Dad replied evenly. "It's part of what I am; you and your sister both have the right to know about it. I'll tell you one thing--" he paused, as if collecting his thoughts, and went on, "I've had a long time to think about this, and I've come to the conclusion it's a good thing the situation ended as it did. Good for everyone--and especially for me. If your mother had never come aboard Raven…well, it's possible I might have made it through the remainder of that mission with my career intact. But I certainly wouldn't have come out unscathed, or with my confidence in any better shape. At best I would have spent the next twenty years in the engine hull of some other ship, and eventually retired, absolutely alone and with all my guilt still intact. I paid a heavy price--but in the end I gained a life."

"Uh, Dad," I said, "excuse me, but wasn't that just a little corny?"

He smiled widely. "Yes," he admitted. "But true nonetheless." He reached for his palm-reader, but paused. "You know, Tom, there's something I've never told anyone--not even your mother. She knows, I'm sure; she has a knack for finding things out, as I'm sure you're aware. But I've never felt able to tell her."

I waited, and a moment later he went on, "It happened about six months before she and I were reunited. There I was one day, minding my own business, when a lieutenant from CF Ops called me. Carlisle, I think his name was.

"It seems they were investigating the Raven affair and its aftermath, and they had questions about my resignation. I was the only one who quit, you know. All the others--except those who were cashiered or imprisoned--accepted their punishments and moved on. The Admirals wanted to know why I'd left; whether I'd felt pressured to resign, whether I'd been treated fairly--that sort of thing."

"What did you tell him?"

Dad shrugged. "An edited version of what I just told you." He sighed. "It might have been better if I'd just hung up on him. I wasn't under any obligation to explain, God knows. I could have programmed my terminal to refuse his calls, and forgotten all about it. But for some reason I decided to talk to him, and I revealed a number of things I wish I hadn't--not to a complete stranger, anyway."

"And?" I prompted, intrigued.

"And…well, Carlisle brought up the same points you did just now: that I'd clearly been suffering from stress, and that it would have passed in time, with light duty and counseling. He even implied that Admiral Conroy shouldn't have accepted my resignation; that he should have strung me along until the Psych Boys could get hold of me.

"But anyway--bottom line--what the Admirals really wanted was to get me back. The CF had invested a lot in my training, Carlisle said--which was true enough--and they couldn't afford to lose an engineer with my experience." He chuckled. "He promised me the stars, too--literally. Reinstatement of my rank, immediate reassignment as a Crew Chief--and on a real ship, not a rust-bucket like Raven. And the fast track to command too."

I gazed at him in astonishment. "So what were you still doing on Terra when Mom arrived?"

He shrugged. "I turned them down," he said. "Obviously."

"But why, for the Goddess' sake?"

"I told you," he said placidly. "I'd closed a chapter. If they'd called a year earlier, after I'd returned to Terra broke and directionless, I might have agreed. Oh, I was tempted; never believe I wasn't. But by then I'd become…comfortable. I had my work, I had a home in a place I was growing to love…and I didn't have to call anyone 'sir' any more. Going back just didn't seem worthwhile." He quirked an eye. "What would you have done?"

I scratched my head, brushing back a thick orange mane that was still too short for my bond-mate's taste. "Honestly," I said, almost apologetically, "I would have jumped at the chance."

He nodded. "I know you would," he said. "Because you're Ehm'ayla's son."

"But," I said, "that brings us back to where we started. If you'd accepted the Admiral's offer, you wouldn't have been there to meet Mom that day…"

"A thought too horrible to contemplate," he said with a smile. He glanced at his wrist chrono, lying there on the night-table next to a glass of water. "I suppose we'd better get some sleep," he went on. "The first briefing is at oh-eight-hundred."

He was right, again: it was past midnight now, local time, and it wouldn't do to appear groggy--not before a room full of Combined Forces brass. I brushed my teeth--I was still trying to get the taste of that horrible coffee out of my mouth--and hung up my clothes, far more neatly than I would have at home, because my wardrobe was limited here. My collar (a precious item, because it had been a birthday gift from my bond-mate) I laid neatly atop the dresser. I'd been awake for nearly eighteen straight hours, and I was undeniably tired--but sleep didn't come quite that easily. My body was still on Terran/Pacific time, for one thing; and the events of that long and busy day kept playing and replaying in my mind's eye, over and over, bouncing back and forth through my head like a demented kaleidoscope. For a long time I lay flat on my back, my hands behind my head and my tail flicking lazily between my legs, staring up through the darkness at the glittering reflections on the ceiling. To my right, my father's breathing gradually deepened and roughened, riding the ragged edge of a snore, almost--but not quite--drowning out the soft whoosh of air through the vents, the gurgle of water through the plumbing, and the footsteps and faint murmuring voices of people in the corridors outside, above and below.

It's an amazing--and sobering--thing to contemplate how close you came to never being born at all. Dad could have gone back into the CF; or--more likely--he could have caught a later shuttle from Seattle that fateful day, thereby missing Mom entirely. And she herself could have taken her shore leave on Sah'aar instead of Terra, or decided that Asilomar Beach was a more attractive place for a walk than Ocean View Avenue. Either way…no Tom or Rae Abrams. Mom would certainly have mated eventually, and had kits--but they wouldn't have been us, either by genes or upbringing.

In a strange way, Dad's story was the flip side Mom's own. The Admirals were not at all happy with her decision to take a ground assignment, all those years ago. They'd decided to fast-track her to command, with an assignment as First Officer of a Planetary Research vessel as the first step. But then she encountered Dad, there on that Pacific Grove sidewalk--and decided she didn't care to accept another long deep-space mission. They insisted, and she threatened to resign; it took the full persuasive powers of Commodore Ehm'rael and Captain Haliday to change the Admirals' minds. She always claimed she wasn't suited for ship command--but I'd seen her in action at the Research Center, and I tended to question that. I often wondered if she was just rationalizing, trying to ease the regrets that must surely still be lingering, somewhere deep in her mind. I wondered--but I'd never worked up the courage to ask.

Well…as Dad had pointed out, we had an early morning and a busy day ahead of us. I only wish I'd known--as I curled into a ball, seeking without success a comfortable spot on that hard and narrow bed--just how long and painful tomorrow would turn out to be.