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.




Dr. Zriss closed her eyes briefly, as if in pain. "Mr. Abrams," she said, "are you a trained psychologist?"

"No," Dad said. "I'm a trained engineer."

The doctor fixed him with her alarming blood-red stare, full of disapproval. "Then why do you believe yourself qualified to diagnose Mr. Mayer?"

Dad sighed and turned his gaze heavenward, seeking strength. I knew how he felt.

It was the morning of our fourth day on Centaurus Minor, and we'd had a lucky break, at least so far as our investigation was concerned: suddenly and unexpectedly, Admiral Chuulah had called a meeting of his private staff, effectively canceling the morning's tech briefings. What it was all about we had no idea--but my father had never been known to refuse a gift of time.

Our first stop was the medical center, a huge complex that took up the entire twenty-seventh floor of the Administration Building. Mainly, of course, we were there so the doctors could check my side. (Doing well: the soreness had all but disappeared, and beneath the coating of dermapatch the burn was already more than half-healed. The bandage would vanish in two or three days, leaving nothing more than a patch of regrowing fur and a nasty memory.) But Dad--who's always been a big fan of multitasking--had another purpose for our visit: tracking down Mayer's psychologist. It hadn't been easy--and now it was beginning to look like the effort may have been wasted.

"I'm not trying to diagnose him," Dad said patiently. "I'm just pointing out anomalies."

All things being equal, it would be nice if one's psychiatrist was a comforting individual, trust-inspiring and easy to be around. Mine certainly had been: a middle-aged Terran woman with a soft voice and a sympathetic smile. Dr. Zriss, unfortunately, was none of those things. She was a Hattosh--the only member of that species I'd ever encountered, except on the threevee screen--and entering her office had been a little like dropping into Greek mythology. She resembled nothing more than a very large Terran snake, her bright-green body about four meters long and covered with shimmering scales. Her four arms--two pair, each emerging from a single complex shoulder joint--were long, almost stick-like, and ended in small six-fingered hands. Her mouth was lipless, and as she spoke--with a lisping, sibilant accent--I caught frequent glimpses of the dark, jagged teeth within. She was a civilian, not CF, and the dark-blue form-fitting sleeve that covered her upper body bore only a single decoration: a gold pin, the stylized spiral of the Spaceflight Psychology Center.

"Let me see if I understand your theory correctly," she said. She sat--if that's the right word--in a tight coil atop a low, padded platform behind a cluttered desk. Like Admiral Teeheek's, her corner office was large, even luxurious; but unlike our friend the Centaurii's, it was well-decorated, every wall and corner filled with curious works of art. I didn't know what her bedside manner was like--and I hoped I'd never have to find out--but she treated my father and me with scant patience. It had taken some time to track her down, and longer to persuade her to give us a few minutes of her time. That she resented the interruption I couldn't doubt: her irritation was obvious--disturbingly so--in the constant vibrating flick of her forked tongue.

"You believe Mr. Mayer was lying when he said he had been ordered by Captain Antilles to kill your son?"

"I believe that may be so," Dad replied evenly. "Of course I'm not speaking literally. Obviously Captain Antilles is no longer in a position to be giving anyone orders."

The doctor hissed in derision. "Obviously."

"But I believe Mayer may have invented that delusion with deliberate intent to deceive."

"And why should he do that?"

Dad shrugged. "Some people," he said, "might consider a psychiatric hospital a more congenial place to be than a penal colony--given the choice."

"You're saying Mayer falsified his condition to lessen his punishment?"

"It's been known to happen."

Dr. Zriss looked pained. "Is that not a rather large conclusion to draw? On the basis of no evidence at all, apart from your own suspicions?"

Dad spread his hands. "I keep telling you," he said, "I'm not drawing any conclusions at all. I'm simply making suggestions. What you do with them is your business."

Zriss took a deep breath. "I do appreciate your concern," she said, sounding at least partially mollified. She glanced at me. "I do not yet have any offspring, but if I did, and if one of them had been viciously attacked, I do not doubt I would feel much as you do. But I wonder if perhaps you are reading too much into this…"

"You've seen his psych file," Dad said evenly. "So you tell me: in his entire CF career, has he ever before shown signs of delusional behavior?"

"No," Zriss admitted. Then, suddenly, her glowing red eyes narrowed. "And just how do you know that, Mr. Abrams?"

You've got to hand it to my father: caught red-handed, he neither flinched nor turned away. "I have my sources," he said dismissively. Then, before she could interrupt, he went on: "Granted, Mayer hasn't been entirely normal for many years. But as far as anyone knew, his problem was a simple lack of motivation. Isn't that what his file indicates? If he was ever suspected of having hallucinations, how long would he have remained on active duty?"

"Not long," Zriss said. "Obviously."

"In fact, weren't the Admirals simply marking time--shoving him into a duty where he couldn't do much harm, until he retired?"

Zriss reached across her desk, adjusting a framed holo of herself in a serpentine embrace with another member the same species. There seemed little or no difference between them--but then Hattosh are hermaphrodites. Finally, sadly, she said, "From what I have seen, you may be right. Had I been involved, things would have gone differently--but it is far too late for such regrets."

"Mayer was traumatized by the events aboard Raven," Dad said. "So were a number of others; but it seems to have hit him harder than most. In my opinion the CF failed him--and what happened two days ago was the result."

"Possibly so," Zriss said. "However, that is the past. I must concern myself with the future--specifically, Mr. Mayer's future."

"Which he has thrown away," Dad said.

"Undoubtedly," the doctor agreed. "Mr. Abrams, it is certainly true that criminals have been known to claim mental illness in a misguided attempt to escape punishment--though I myself have never encountered such a case. Your theory, I believe, is that Mayer was actually motivated by revenge?"

Dad hesitated, glancing at me; then, finally, he nodded. "For lack of any better idea," he said, "yes. He had reason to hate my wife, Tom's mother--and may have wished to hurt her. Certainly a more straightforward hypothesis than phantom voices…"

Hearing the note of uncertainty in his voice, I frowned. So far as I'd been aware, that was his explanation, in a nutshell. Had something caused him to change his mind? And if so, what--and why? He hadn't discussed it with me; whether deliberately, or through an oversight, I didn't know. I made a mental note to ask him later; now, obviously, wasn't the time.

Zriss looked away. "On the face of it," she said, "I tend to agree. I am a psychiatrist, but I'm not compelled to find complex aberrations in each and every behavior. Revenge--rational or not--has indeed motivated many crimes, on my world as well as yours. But you must understand: at this point I can't say where the truth may lie. I have just begun to investigate; I haven't even had the opportunity to interview him, because he refuses to speak. At present I can only assure you that I will keep your suspicions very much in mind as I proceed."

Dad smiled and nodded. "That's all we can ask, Doctor," he said. "Thank you."

She leaned forward--or, more accurately, seemed to flow partway across the desk. "I do find myself wondering, though," she said, "about your motivations."

Dad hesitated for a long moment, and when he looked back at me I saw that his expression was troubled. "Justice," he said finally. "Whether Mayer was hallucinating, or whether that's just an excuse, I don't believe he's entirely responsible for his actions. I lay most of the blame squarely on Captain Antilles. And I do want Mayer to get help--the right kind of help."

"And you, young man?" the doctor asked me. "What is your opinion?"

I shook myself. "Dad's the deep thinker," I told her. "I just want Mayer as far away from me as possible."


As we left the medical center, Dad rubbed his eyes tiredly. "Well, that was useless," he announced.

I rounded on him in surprise. "She said she'd consider it…"

"Maybe," Dad said grimly. "But…well, how can I put this? Dr. Zriss is a psychiatrist. Despite her assurances to the contrary, she has a vested interest in taking Mayer's story at face value."


"If Mayer is hearing voices, he's a challenge. If not--then he's nothing more than a liar and an attempted murderer. A matter for the JAG, not the Psych Boys. Or maybe I'm just being cynical. At very least, I suppose we gave her something to think about."

"Dad," I said, as we stepped into an empty elevator, "were you telling her the truth? When she asked about your motives, I mean."

For a few seconds he stood silent, gazing up at the blinking floor indicator. "I think so," he said finally. "I'll be honest with you: to a certain extent I want revenge too. It's inevitable; I'm not a Modified. But I really do blame Antilles far more than Mayer--and I do want to see Mayer get treatment."

I thought about that. Then I said, "But you don't believe any more that he was trying to get to Mom through me."

He shook his head. "No," he said. "I don't. It's plausible, it explains everything…but it doesn't feel right. The more I think about it, the less I believe it."


"Two reasons," he said. "One, Mayer isn't stupid. I'm having a hard time convincing myself that he would have blamed your mother for what happened. He'd know as well as I did who was really at fault--and I don't see him as a 'kill the messenger' type."

I nodded. "And two?"

"Two--Mayer liked your mother. Well enough to risk Antilles' wrath and help me search for her after she vanished on Hellhole. I was with him in the pod: he was absolutely frantic, and he blamed himself for her having been left behind. If you could have seen him then--well, let's just say you'd also have a hard time believing he'd ever want to harm her."

"I'll have to take your word for that," I said. Though times--and people--do change… "But if so--what's the alternative?"

He smiled. "I have no idea. Not yet, anyway."

"So where to now?"

"Security offices," he said. "We've got another mystery on our hands, remember. Do you have your palm-reader?"

I patted my shirt pocket. "Yes."

"Good," he said. "Hang onto it--no matter what."

We'd spent the previous evening poring over my reader, struggling to find some pattern in the files that were missing or corrupted. As near as I could tell, a little more than half were gone, deleted past recovery; and the rest, almost without exception, were damaged to a greater or lesser degree. Only the base operating system was intact--and a good thing too, or the reader would have been useless. In and of itself it wasn't a disaster; with the exception of the notes I'd taken, there was nothing I couldn't replace as soon as we got home. No, the implications were what made my flesh crawl. It was late at night when we gave up in disgust, with only one firm conclusion drawn: whatever had happened was not a malfunction.

The officer on duty at the Security desk was neither Lieutenant Stewart nor his friend Tony, but rather an ensign, a blond-haired human woman who seemed barely older than me. Yes, Commander Hammond was in his office; but the ensign was not exactly eager to disturb him. Dad was persuasive, though--in a way that Mom would not have been pleased to witness--and a few minutes later we were ushered into a room as small, bare and cheerless as Dr. Zriss' had been luxurious. There was only one guest chair; Dad sat and I stood, my hands resting on the back of his seat.

As with the good doctor, the Security chief seemed none too pleased to see us; our day to be unpopular, I guess. He sat frowning, his arms folded across his chest, as Dad spoke; and finally he broke in: "Let me make sure I understand this. You're saying your son's palm-reader was tampered with while it was locked in my evidence room?"

"I'm saying that appears to be the case," Dad said patiently. "The files are damaged; it's consistent with a clumsy or over-hurried attempt to copy or upload the data. If there's another explanation, I'd love to hear it."

Hammond glanced at me. "Perhaps a young--man--who doesn't know how to operate a reader?" he suggested.

I quickly moved my hands; my fingertips were too close to the back of Dad's neck. If Hammond recognized the significance of my whipping tail, he gave no sign.

Dad said, "I know my son's abilities, Commander. He's been handling palm-readers since before he knew how to read. I wouldn't have entrusted him with any piece of equipment he doesn't know how to operate. With respect, I can't see that as a valid explanation."

For a moment Hammond sat silent, his jaw working. Then he said, "First of all, Mr. Stewart had no business giving civilians access to the evidence room, and he has been suspended from duty for doing so. Second, access to that room is tightly restricted, to myself and a very few other officers, with the rank of lieutenant or above. Officers whose honesty and integrity are above question. I don't know what happened to your son's reader, Mr. Abrams--but I assure you, no one on my staff tampered with it. And I deeply resent the implication that any of them did."

"Of course you know your people," Dad said placidly. "And as for implications, I'm making none. But can we be absolutely sure no one else could gain access? In my experience, no level of security is absolute." He paused. "Will you at least check the access logs, and find out who might have entered the evidence room during the hours in question?"

Hammond sighed. "Mr. Abrams, I am an extremely busy man," he said. "I must police a large facility and a large number of people, both CF and civilians. And it is the latter, quite frankly, who require the most attention. You and your son have already done enough to increase my workload; I'm afraid I have no more time to spend on you."

There was a long silence. I knew exactly what Dad was thinking: he was wishing Mom was there. He believed he could handle almost any situation, and he was usually right--but there are times when only superior rank will serve. Hammond would not have spoken that way to a commodore--most especially not to Commodore Ehm'ayla. Not more than once, anyway.

Finally Dad sighed and stood. "Thank you for your time, Commander," he said. "I'll be certain to let Admiral Teeheek know how cooperative you've been."

Hammond smiled mockingly. "I doubt she'll have any more time for your fantasies than I do."

Out in the hallway, I cleared my throat. "Useless?" I asked.

"Utterly," Dad agreed. Then he paused, stroking his beard thoughtfully. "Or maybe not." He glanced at his chrono. "Lunchtime again," he observed. He grinned. "Are you as sick of autokitchen food as I am?"


"Good." He clapped my shoulder. "We aren't getting anything done here. Let's go to town."


As Dad always said, if there was a pizza parlor within fifty kilometers, I'd sniff it out--even in the midst of a pocket-sized jungle.

Not that the distance was anywhere near that great. In fact it was a straight shot of about five kilometers, due east, from the Fabrication Center to the wholly civilian settlement of Discovery Valley. That city prides itself on being the oldest on Centaurus Minor, having been founded as a rough-and-tumble mining-and-manufacturing colony almost three centuries ago. Which is interesting enough, I suppose--though my sister is the history buff, not me.

The journey took only five minutes, in a torpedo-shaped shuttle that could have held about twenty people, but was empty except for the two of us. Unlike the short-distance cars I was used to, this one was windowless--but that didn't matter much, because it ran entirely underground.

The ride was quiet, and not only because mag-lev cars run in utter silence. Dad was apparently deep in thought, his lips pursed and his fingers steepled; and I sat with my tail flicking and my claws half-expressed, reliving the indignities we'd suffered. Nobody likes being told how to do their job. If there was a lesson to be learned from our experience, that had to be it. Though the level of hostility, especially Hammond's, did seem a trifle excessive…

The city of Discovery Valley consisted of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of pressure domes, of widely differing sizes and ages. They were all interconnected, by means of a bewildering maze of corridors; but each was a separate entity, able to be sealed off from the others in case of emergency. The shuttle let us out into the largest, the center of business and commerce, a huge structure more than two kilometers long and half a kilometer wide.

As we stepped from the car, right in the middle of that titanic space, I stumbled, and probably would have fallen, if not for Dad's steadying hand on my elbow. Suddenly I seemed to weigh less than half what I should, and my feet were trying to slide out from under me.

"Sorry," Dad said with a smile. "I ought to have warned you. They keep this dome at Centaurus Minor surface gravity--about point four G."

I took a few practice steps. It would require concentration--having all the mass but less than half the weight--but I could cope. Sah'aarans are nothing if not sure-footed. It did bring to mind, though, something I ought to have realized days ago. "Of course," I said. "The Fabrication Center has grav-plates."

Dad nodded. "That's right. So do most of the communities on Minor. But when this place was settled, they hadn't been invented yet. The public spaces are kept at natural gravity as a kind of historical monument. It's a novelty for visitors too."

About then I looked up--and as a consequence, nearly stumbled again. Rough-and-tumble, did I say? Maybe once--but no longer. We'd entered at surface level, near the dome's south end, and it stretched away to the north as far as I could see, the opposite end lost in distance and haze. At ground level, where we stood, the dome was about half a kilometer wide. On its east and west perimeters lay wide straight walkways, with moving sidewalks along their edges. And in the center…well, I'd never yet been to Centaurus itself, but I'd seen holos; and it was as if a piece of that planet's worldwide jungle had been transported bodily to that dry and barren demi-moon. A solid strip of green, moist and steamy, it was filled with bizarre, towering trees, with smooth lime-colored bark, twining, tortured-looking limbs and dark-red leaves; choking tangles of vine, chartreuse shading into lemon; and stiff-branched leafless shrubs. Strange, strident bird-calls echoed forth from amidst the trees. Here and there I saw clear areas, wide flat fields carpeted with a growth that looked like cotton balls dipped in green dye. Narrow paths wound through the jungle, lined with benches and children's playgrounds, the equipment--swings, climbing bars, sandboxes and so forth--not much different from what you'd see on Terra or Sah'aar. Climbing high above the rainforest, the sides of the dome were terraced, the twenty or so levels lined with shops and offices. The arched ceiling appeared to be transparent--but with the dawn still several days away, it was a study in black. Bright floodlights stood in for the absent sun. The air was damp--for me, uncomfortably so--but fresh and loaded with oxygen; and the smell of all that greenery was wonderful.

…And yes, the place was crowded. The terraces were packed, a solid mass of bodies, and so too was the strip of jungle. At a guess, more than ninety-five percent of them were Centaurii--not too surprising, I suppose--and in that seething crowd I saw every variation possible on the theme of avocado scales and iridescent green feathers, bare-headed males and red-crested females. What I didn't see was clothing: in their everyday lives, Centaurii seldom bother. Amidst that gathering--or maybe I should say "flock"--the occasional human or Quadrian stood out like a maxigrazer in a herd of Spotted Leapers.

Oddly, once I'd gotten over the initial shock, I found myself relaxing, for the first time in several days. In a way, this wasn't much different from the pedestrian shopping malls of my home town--except in size--and the sight of all that greenery, however bizarre, was curiously refreshing. Sis would love this, I thought, and heard myself sigh.

"Something wrong?" Dad asked, and I shook my head.

"Not really," I said. "I was just thinking how much I miss Mom and Rae."

"Me too," he assured me. "Very much." He laid a hand on my shoulder. "Come on--I think the food court is on the tenth level northwest."

We rode up in a glass-walled elevator that moved at an almost insane speed, and was crowded with Centaurii. As usual, we gathered a fair number of curious glances--I was used to that too--but whatever comments our temporary companions made to each other, I don't know: the translators embedded in their breastbones were switched off. And if they were staring…well, so was I. Centaurii children--"chicks," the correct term is--grow extremely fast, and by the age of ten are indistinguishable from their parents. But they mature slowly, not even reaching puberty until the age of forty--something I find hard to imagine. Those who surrounded me now could be fifteen, or a hundred and fifty; if they can tell the difference, I can't.

The food court, we soon discovered, wasn't just on the tenth level northwest; it was the tenth level northwest. The stalls--dozens of them--were clustered along the dome-side wall, facing a wide balcony covered with hundreds, if not thousands, of tables. At first glance, the only thing lacking seemed to be variety--but on closer examination, that proved not to be true. Centaurii are fruit-eaters--period. We Sah'aarans can digest vegetable matter, only just, in extremely small quantities--but Centaurii can neither assimilate nor chew meat, raw or cooked. For that reason, the vast majority of the stalls were nothing more than long counters piled high with fruit. I recognized many Terran forms: apples, oranges, lemons, limes, grapefruits, kiwis, guavas, papayas, bananas, pomegranates, you name it; and there were many others, Centaurii forms I guess, which I couldn't even begin to describe--nor would I want to. To a carnivore, a revolting sight.

Fortunately, the diners weren't all Centaurii; and when I caught a whiff of the heavenly scent of melted mozzarella, tomato sauce and pepperoni, I need only follow my nose. I led the way, to a rather lonely red-roofed stall in the far corner, while Dad trailed along behind, a knowing grin on his face. We ordered pizzas (combo for him, triple-meat for me) and a pitcher of iced tea, and took them to a table near the railing, where we could watch the passing crowd. The atmosphere wasn't quite the same as our favorite restaurant on Lighthouse Avenue; and I was a little dubious about Italian food cooked by a Quadrian--but as Dad had promised, it was far better than the stuff the autokitchen had been feeding us.

Some time later I swallowed and said, "Dad? Can I ask you a question?"

"Of course."

"You said that only the public spaces are kept at surface gravity--"

He nodded. "That's right," he confirmed. "The residential domes, the schools, and most of the offices have grav-plates. One standard Centaurii G--which is about 1.1 Terran G."

"My question is--why do they bother?" I asked. "And why does the CF bother?"

"A matter of physiology," he explained. "Most species do best in their native gravity. Take you and your sister, for example. Sah'aar's gravity is about .97 Terran Standard. A trifling difference--but all the same, you and Rae do have measurably greater muscle mass than native-born Sah'aarans your age."

"Nice to know," I said wryly.

"But if you let Sah'aarans, or humans, or Centaurii, grow up in .4 G, you'd have problems. They'd grow fast, and tall, but their bones would be fragile--too little calcium. Their muscles wouldn't be as strong either, or their hearts. You've met your mother's old friend Max Goodwin, haven't you?"

I nodded. It had been a long time ago, when Rae and I were barely six years old; but I remembered well my astonishment. Goodwin--Captain Goodwin, as he was then, later Admiral--was more than half a meter taller than any human I'd ever met, and skinny as the proverbial rail.

"Before he joined the Combined Forces, his entire skeleton had to be reinforced with carbon-fiber ceramics," Dad said. "He had to work like hell to build up his muscles too--and his colony world has .68 G. You can see how much worse it would be if someone were to grow up in much lighter gravity." He waved his hand. "A few hours in a place like this doesn't matter, of course."

Which was good, because directly below us was a playground, and it was packed full of Centaurii chicks. Even ten levels up I could hear their excited peeping.

"Oddly enough," Dad went on, "for older people it's just the opposite. There are a number of low-G rest homes on Earth's moon." He grinned. "You can keep that in mind when your mother and I are old and senile."

"Never happen," I said with a grin. I paused, then went on, "A while back I asked if talking to Hammond had been useless. You started to say yes--then you changed your mind. What did you mean by that?"

Dad helped himself to another slice before he answered. "I've been asking myself the same thing," he said. He shook his head. "Maybe I'm just being paranoid," he went on. "This situation breeds suspicion, very much like That Ship did. You start seeing plots and conspiracies in everything. So I've been trying to work it through logically."


He took a deep breath. "Obviously, Hammond was irritated because a mere civilian dared to tell him how to run his department. That's a given." He paused. "No, worse than a civilian--a CF wash-out."

I decided to let that one slide, and Dad continued, "It's also a given that in those kinds of situations, bureaucrats tend to close ranks. It's natural for Hammond to defend himself and his staff against the criticism of outsiders, right or wrong. It's almost a reflex. But when someone comes to him with evidence of something strange occurring right under his nose, and he dismisses it with hardly a blink--that's when I get suspicious. Remember what I told you before we saw him--that you should hang onto your reader at all costs?"

"Yes," I said. "I wondered why you said that."

"Because I expected him to try to confiscate it," Dad said. "He knew you had it with you; he kept glancing at your shirt pocket. The fact that he didn't try makes me suspicious too. And why should he refuse to check the evidence room access log? It would have taken him less than thirty seconds; hardly a significant waste of time, even for someone so terribly busy."

"Maybe he will--in private."

"Maybe so," Dad said. "You see I'm not exactly on solid ground here. But the way I see it, there are several possibilities. Perhaps Hammond has complete trust in his security--in which case he's a fool. Or perhaps he dismissed us so abruptly because he knows very well that something is going on. In which case either he himself is involved--which I doubt--or it's something top-secret, too hot for civilians. Take your pick."

I thought about that for a moment. Then I said, "Dad, I hate to say this--but I hope you know what a house of cards that is."

"Certainly," he agreed. "But there's one more piece to the puzzle: your friend Lieutenant Stewart."

"I don't--"

"Consider what Hammond said. Stewart shouldn't have given us access to the evidence room, and he's been suspended from duty for doing so. Not reprimanded, not put on report, but suspended. Which, I can assure you, is a very big deal indeed--especially for an officer. Stewart was obviously a person of some authority; one of the few, according to Hammond, who had access to the evidence room. Obviously he didn't think he was doing anything wrong; after all--as he himself said--the CF is only interested in your jacket and shirt, as evidence against Mayer. But just as obviously, Hammond disagreed--strongly enough to slap Stewart with a punishment second only to court-martial. Which is a bit of a dichotomy, to say the least. Why should something that one officer views as a harmless favor be regarded by another as a major breach of regulations? The only answer I can think of is that there is something important about your palm-reader--and only Hammond knew it."

"Or it was the last straw," I mused.

"Pardon me?"

The words came slowly; I was thinking through my argument even as I spoke. "Maybe Stewart has a history of disciplinary problems," I suggested. "And this one--minor as it was--pushed Hammond over the edge."

Dad smiled. "Logical," he said, "but I doubt it. If he was that much of a problem, he wouldn't have been entrusted with the codes for the evidence room. But we can check."

For a moment my whiskers drooped. Then I said, "Is this what you were talking about yesterday? When you said that no one could have known I hadn't taken many notes during the design meetings?"

"Yes," he said. "I have no proof, but…well, consider this. If someone wanted details of the focus-group meetings--someone with insufficient security clearance, say--what better way than to get hold of a palm-reader that had been used to take notes there? He'd only find out after the fact that it contained nothing useful."

"And if he had just a few minutes," I mused, "he wouldn't try to read the notes there and then--he'd dump as many files as possible onto a card, and run."


I thought about that for a moment, idly spinning my pizza pan with the claw of my right forefinger. "But what does that have to do with Mayer?" I asked.

Dad shrugged. "Most likely nothing," he said. "Except that his attack provided someone with an opportunity too good to pass up. The questions being, of course, who--and why."

"Or this could all be a fantasy," I pointed out.

"Granted," Dad said. "But if so, then we're back where we began--with a number of strange and unexplained occurrences on our hands."

Unfortunately, he was right. My reader had been tampered with, and Hammond had stonewalled us. And then there was poor Lieutenant Stewart. Those were the circumstances with which we had to cope--and there had to be something linking them together. But at the same time, our stock of facts was still pitifully small--and in the absence of data, theories all too often spin out of control. Whatever the truth was, it would likely be something entirely mundane…

I cleared my throat. "So--what now?"

"Well," Dad said, "I came to Centaurus Minor to do a job, and I'd better keep doing it, unless I want to lose my contract. But in our spare time we can still do some judicious poking around." He grinned. "Maybe there are a few more files we can hack." Abruptly he sobered, and his voice dropped to a near-whisper. "But quietly," he went on. "We've been a bit careless so far--that stops now. And we watch each other's backs."

I felt my eyebrows rise. "Why?" I asked. "Mayer's in custody…"

"Mayer is, yes," Dad agreed grimly. "But the person who messed with your reader isn't. We have no idea who that was--or what his motives were."

That thought jolted me, and I felt a sharp twinge from my side. I'd assumed that the physical danger had ended when I disarmed Mayer. But if we assumed that someone had been looking for information relating to the Isaac Haliday…then the list of possible suspects suddenly became alarming: terrorists, alien governments, enemies of the Alliance…almost anyone. Another paranoid fantasy, most likely--but we'd be a lot safer if we assumed it wasn't.

But why would terrorists want data about life-support systems? I asked myself. That was available to almost anyone, even the reporters. And the Haliday was--or would be--a Survey vessel, not a Navy battleship. Its construction should threaten nobody. File it away, under "unexplained"--though that folder was growing uncomfortably thick…

We'd finished our meals by then, and as we returned the pans, the pitcher and the glasses to the counter, I asked Dad, "Where to?"

He smiled and gripped my arm. "Since we're here, in the heart of Centaurus Minor commerce--"

"As it says in the tourist brochures."

"--We ought to hunt up a clothing store and replace that shirt and jacket. If we can find a close enough match, maybe your mother will never know."

The chances of that were extremely small, as he knew very well--but it's the thought that counts.


Dad and I arrived back at our quarters in the Administration Building a little past fourteen hundred, and as we entered, we found the "message waiting" light flashing on the computer terminal. Dad pounced on that, while I carefully hung up the latest additions to my wardrobe.

Neither Dad nor I were what you'd call shopping addicts--not like my sister or my bond-mate, both of whom would have thought they'd died and gone to the Bright Domains--and we had no desire to turn it into an all-day expedition. We were fortunate, then, to locate a small cluster of human-style clothing stores on the fourth level southeast, and, in the very first shop we tried, to find adequate replacements for my damaged clothes. Not identical--not exactly, anyway--but close enough for me. Fortunately too, I can take things like that off the rack; trousers are a little more complicated. They were quite a bit more expensive than the ones they'd replaced, and I hesitated over that--but Dad told me not to worry. "I'm adding that to my consulting bill, you bet," he assured me.

As I closed the wardrobe door, I spoke over my shoulder: "Dad? Have you hyperzapped Mom yet? About what happened in the museum, I mean."

"No," he admitted. "I haven't." He chuckled. "To tell you the truth I've almost been afraid to. I guess I'll have to eventually." He paused. "What the hell--?"

I stepped up behind him. "What's wrong?"

Frowning, he pointed at the screen. "Take a look."

I did. The message that had been waiting for us was text-only, and quite brief. It was signed by Admiral Chuulah, and had been delivered a little before noon, just about the time Dad and I left for Discovery Valley. "To all civilian contractors associated with the Isaac Haliday project. Please report to Briefing Theater 501 at 14:30 hours today for an important meeting. Attendance mandatory."

I glanced at Dad. "What's this all about?"

He shrugged. "No idea." He glanced at his chrono. "But if we're going to find out, we'll have to hurry. Come on."

We made it to the fifth floor just in time, and to our surprise we found the corridor outside the big auditorium packed with people, reporters all, held back by a stone-faced line of CF Security. As Dad and I stepped off the elevator, the crowd surged forward against the guards' linked arms. Amidst that mind-numbing bedlam I caught only brief snatches of the questions they shouted: "Mr. Abrams, is it true--?" and "Mr. Abrams, can you confirm--?" Dad could do no more than smile and shrug in reply. Myself, I was astounded: I'd had no idea the press knew my father by name.

After showing our security clearances to the guards at the door--who seemed even more suspicious than usual--we were ushered in. It was, of course, the same auditorium where that first briefing had been held, three days ago; and as then, the place was packed with engineers. Even as we entered, though, I could tell that the mood today was dramatically different. Once again Dad's colleagues and competitors were gathered into small groups, talking among themselves; but this time there were no smiles, no laughter. Their expressions were grim, their conversations almost furtive; and they glanced constantly from side to side, as if afraid of being overheard. It was positively weird.

"Something's going on, that's for sure," Dad said quietly as we made our way down the aisle.

"Maybe we shouldn't have left the building," I replied wryly.

He glanced at me. "You may be right."

Eventually, I'm sure, we would have been accosted, and pumped for information that we didn't have. But fortunately for everyone, we were spared. Even as we slipped into our seats, the door at the rear of the platform opened, and four people stepped through. As they did, the buzz of conversation ceased instantly--and I could well understand why.

They stepped slowly to the front of the stage and stopped, clustered around the podium. It was a gathering the likes of which we had not seen before; and what it meant, we could only guess. Admiral Teeheek came first, followed by Admiral Chuulah; and behind them, Chuulah's aide Commander Chen and Security Chief Hammond. All of them looked tired and grim; and Chuulah seemed especially haggard, his huge head bowed and his tentacles drooping.

"Thank you for coming," Teeheek said. Even through the loudspeaker her translated voice was quiet, and we had to lean forward to hear. "On behalf of my colleagues, I apologize for calling this meeting on such short notice."

She paused, then went on, "There is no easy way for me to say this, I fear, so I will come directly to the point. As of now, the UESV Isaac Haliday project is postponed indefinitely."

She waited until the stir had died down, a little anyway, before she continued: "What this means to all of you, I regret to say, is that the Combined Forces is no longer in need of your services, at least for the foreseeable future. As stipulated in your contracts, you will be paid one-half your agreed consulting fees. We will be arranging for your passage off Centaurus Minor beginning tomorrow morning. Please make yourselves ready to depart. That is all."

There was about five seconds of utter, pin-drop silence; then the Dark Ones descended. Several hundred engineers, young and old, male and female, human, Centaurii, Quadrian and otherwise, leaped suddenly to their feet, shouting and crowding toward the stage. I stayed in my seat, my hands covering my ears; and beside me Dad sat frozen, his hand grasping my arm in an almost painful grip. In the midst of the chaos, the four officers departed the stage, almost at a run.

Eventually Security arrived, en masse, and for a moment I was afraid we'd end up in the middle of a full-scale riot. But at the sight of that grim-faced squad, stinger rifles charged and ready, the protest died away, and the engineers allowed themselves to be herded out of the auditorium. My father and I were among the few who'd remained seated, and we hung back until the room was almost empty. As we made our way to the door I glanced at Dad--and was surprised to see that he looked neither angry nor stupefied--but rather thoughtful. It was that look again: the one that meant something wasn't making sense.

Out in the corridor things were, if possible, worse. Up the middle of the hallway, a solid double line of Security stood back-to-back and shoulder-to-shoulder. To the right, the reporters lined the wall half a dozen thick, all of them shouting questions as they fought to elbow past the guards. In a sudden fit of concern--irrational maybe--I looked around for that little female Sah'aaran; but she was not in evidence. Smart lady. Opposite, the shell-shocked line of engineers moved slowly toward the elevators, muttering angrily to each other, stolidly ignoring the press. Outside the lifts they milled, waiting for empty cars; and as those arrived they departed, six or eight at a time.

"Dad--?" I began, as soon as I could hear myself think; but I was interrupted. A Security man suddenly detached himself from the double line and stepped up before us, sketching a brief salute. Underneath the helmet and black body armor I recognized the dark hair and blocky features of Tony, Lieutenant Stewart's friend. "Mr. Abrams?" he said. "I'm Lieutenant Mazzaro. Would you and your son please come with me? Admiral Teeheek would like to speak to you."

Dad barely glanced at him. "That's a coincidence," he remarked. "I'd very much like to speak to her too. Come on, Tom."

Mazzaro took us out of line, directly to the elevators, and--blocking a group of engineers with his outstretched arm--commandeered the next car that arrived. Once inside, he punched an override code into the control panel: the car would not stop until we'd reached the top floor. Obviously the admiral wasn't in the mood to wait.

Once again it was a quiet ride. Dad remained thoughtful, his eyes narrowed, and Mazzaro stood ramrod-straight, gazing at the floor indicator. Between the two of them, I felt shorter and less significant than ever. Through the corner of my eye I studied the Security man, wondering uneasily if he might be angry at us for getting his buddy in trouble. "It wasn't our fault!" I almost shouted--but I didn't; I was afraid to break the silence.

Admiral Teeheek was waiting for us in her office, and beside her stood Commander Hammond; it was a scene almost eerily familiar, except that this time my side wasn't quite as sore. "Please sit down," the admiral said, and we did. I couldn't help but notice that Mazzaro remained in the room as well, stiffly at attention beside the door. For some reason that made me uneasy.

"How can we help you, Admiral?" Dad asked mildly.

"There are several matters we must discuss," she said. "First and foremost, my request that the contractors prepare to leave the planet does not apply to you." She nodded at me. "Your son's testimony may still be needed at Mr. Mayer's court-martial."

"I understand," Dad said. "But I hope it won't be too much longer." His tone was right on the edge of rude, and I winced. "I have a business to run, and it appears I'll be needing to drum up some new contracts."

Teeheek and Hammond exchanged a glance. What it signified I didn't know--but suddenly my uneasiness increased tenfold.

It was Hammond who replied. "Mr. Abrams," he said brusquely, "can you account for your movements today, after you left my office?"

Dad stared at him for a long moment. "I don't see why I should have to," he said finally. "But if you really want to know, my son and I went to the city for lunch and shopping. We got back just in time for the meeting."

"Do you have any witnesses?"

Dad shrugged. "All you want," he said. He ticked them off on his fingers. "The guards on duty in the lobby; the people at the food court in the shopping district; the sales clerk at the store where we made a purchase. There aren't many Sah'aarans on Centaurus Minor, as far as I know; I imagine quite a few people noticed my son." He paused, then turned--very deliberately--to Teeheek. "May I ask what this is all about, Admiral?"

Once again Teeheek and Hammond exchanged a glance. Then the admiral said, "I imagine you have been wondering what prompted us to postpone the Haliday project."

"The thought had crossed my mind," Dad said blandly.

"Admiral, do we really want--" Hammond began, but Teeheek held up her hand, silencing him.

"Recently there have been some security concerns related to the project," she told us. "You understand, of course, that I cannot go into details…"

"Of course," Dad said.

"It was believed that the matter was under control," she went on, picking her words carefully. "Unfortunately, that has proved not to be the case. The situation has become quite serious indeed." Again she glanced at me. "Due in part--oddly enough--to your son's palm-reader. The Admiralty has ordered us to remove all civilians--those who are not CF employees--from the Fabrication Center until further notice. Excepting yourselves, of course."

She leaned forward. "I for one am satisfied that the two of you are in no way involved," she went on. "I am prepared to believe that the business with Mayer, and with Tom's reader, constitute nothing more than a bizarre coincidence." She paused. "By the way, Mr. Abrams--it has come to my attention that you have been questioning Mr. Mayer's motives for assaulting your son. I assure you, that is the very least of our worries right now."

She glanced at Hammond. "As I said, I believe you are entirely innocent--but Mr. Hammond is not convinced. He has, in fact, just been urging me to place you both under arrest."

My claws tingling madly, I half-rose--though where exactly I could have gone, I don't know. No farther than the door, I guess. Dad grasped my arm and pushed me back into my seat. "On what charge?" he asked coolly.

It was Hammond who responded, his voice expressionless. "Yesterday morning at approximately oh-nine-thirty hours, security codes belonging to Commodore Ehm'ayla were used to access Lieutenant Mayer's personnel file. Which is a curious thing, because Commodore Ehm'ayla is currently reported to be on Quadria."

Dad's hand was still on my arm, and now his grip tightened in warning. "Sorry," he said evenly. "Can't help you there."

Admiral Teeheek tilted her head. "I thought not," she said. "But you must understand my dilemma, Mr. Abrams. I have been ordered to remove all civilians from this facility--but I must require the two of you to remain. And unfortunately, I know little about either of you." She nodded at Dad. "In your case, a CF file a quarter of a century old, plus a routine security check. In Tom's, nothing at all. In fact I have only your assurance that he is your son."

"Section 10.2 of the Alliance Charter," Dad said. "The Individual's Right to Privacy."

"Just so," Teeheek said--and from the look in her eye, clearly she regarded that inalienable right as a personal inconvenience. "Your wife is a highly-respected Survey officer, and thus I have given you the benefit of the doubt. But I must maintain security--and neither Mr. Hammond nor I can afford to be distracted. If I must place you or your son in custody until Mayer's court-martial, I shall--and I will not need a charge."

"Meaning?" Dad said.

"Simply this," the admiral said. "Whatever private investigation you think you are conducting, it ends now. You will access no more files, and you will speak to no one else, regarding either Mayer or the palm-reader. In short, you will do nothing. Is that clear, Mr. Abrams?"

Dad opened his mouth to reply--then he glanced at me. Had he been by himself, I think, he would have told Teeheek to do her worst. But with me in tow…He spread his hands helplessly. "Understood, Admiral."

"Good," Teeheek said. "You may of course continue to make use of the Officer's Mess and the recreational facilities. But I would be obliged if you would remain in the Center." She glanced at Mazzaro. "Lieutenant, please escort Mr. Abrams and his son to their quarters."

…And that, short and sweet, was the end of the interview. Mom would have had to be removed bodily, leaving long claw-marks in the carpet. But then she'd have been headed to the brig--and our room was at least marginally more comfortable.


Somewhere between the fiftieth and the fifteenth floor, Mazzaro suddenly reached out and pressed the "Hold" button; and as the elevator ground to a shuddering halt he turned to gaze evenly as us. Beside me, Dad's eyes narrowed, and I felt my claws begin to express. Goddess, I thought, he is angry! I couldn't take my eyes off the stinger slung across his shoulder, which suddenly appeared very large and very threatening. What did they used to say? "Killed while trying to escape"?

"Is there a problem, Lieutenant?" Dad said warily.

"No," Mazzaro replied, and he suddenly flashed a grin. "I'm sorry for being so dramatic," he went on, "but I didn't want to be overheard. We can only hang here for a minute, though, before the elevator sounds an alarm. So please, just listen."

Dad nodded. "All right."

Mazzaro swallowed hard. "I know it wasn't your fault, what happened to Stewart. You didn't know what was going on, any more than he did. But he's been singled out, turned into an example, and that's not right."

"In theory, I agree," Dad said carefully. "But what does that have to do with us?"

"I want to tell you what I know," Mazzaro said. "Stewart agrees with me." He pointed upwards. "Admiral Teeheek and Commander Hammond--they're scared to death. They don't know what to do. That's why Hammond overreacted and busted Stewart. What I want to tell you is what's really going on around here."

Dad and I exchanged a glance. My father's face remained blandly inscrutable, but nonetheless I could clearly read his mind: Trap! Finally he said, "And why would you want to tell us, Lieutenant?"

Mazzaro shrugged. "Because you've got high-level CF connections."

Dad grinned. "My 'CF connection' is halfway across the Alliance right now."

"I know,' Mazzaro said. "I heard. And that might actually be a good thing. Listen--this is serious. Deadly serious. If nothing else, Stewart and I want to make sure the truth gets out. Even if it's too late to do any good."

Dad frowned. Mazzaro was actually shaking, his eyes wide and pleading. Why, I couldn't imagine. Finally Dad said, "As you know, my son and I have been ordered to do nothing, and to speak to no one." He paused. "But I suppose if someone is talking, it's only polite to listen."

Mazzaro smiled hugely, and punched the "Resume" button. As we lurched back into motion, he said, "I'm off duty at twenty hundred. I'll come to your quarters then. And don't worry, Mr. Abrams--no one will know I was there."

We fell silent then, and remained so until we reached our room; but as Mazzaro departed and the door closed behind him, Dad grinned and laid his arm across my shoulders. "What was it they used to say in the movies?" he mused. "'The Plot Thickens.'"