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.




Our quarters had been searched. By an expert.

If my father and I felt a little disoriented when Mazzaro left us in our quarters that afternoon…well, I think we can be forgiven. Three-thirty pm, local civilian time; less than an hour had passed since Admiral Teeheek dropped what turned out to be the first in a long series of bombshells. Less than an hour since the world as we knew it came to an end. Overly dramatic? Possibly--but in a certain sense, that's how both of us felt. Even Dad, normally so unflappable, looked dazed.

In such a state, we might never have known at all, except for one thing, one small discrepancy, which I actually passed by two or three times before it finally registered. The closet door was ajar.

I was on my way from the bathroom when I finally noticed, and I stopped dead, one foot literally hovering in mid-air. Dad was slumped at the desk, idly looking over some now-useless notes, and at the sound of my snarl he glanced up. "Something wrong?" he asked.

I pointed. "When we left for the meeting that door was closed," I told him. "I know it was." I turned a slow circle, my eyes narrowing, as I fought to remember. "You'd just sat down at the desk to read the message. I hung up my new clothes, you said 'What the hell?', and I turned to ask you what was wrong. But before I did, I closed the door."

Frowning, Dad set aside his reader. "I think you're right," he said. "I remember hearing the latch click."

The door in question was a semi-circular affair that slipped into a pocket in the wall, and was secured by a small mag-seal. It wasn't open far; just a few centimeters. But it hadn't gotten that way on its own.

"Someone's been in here," Dad said grimly. "That's the only explanation." He rose and gripped my arm. "Let's see if anything's missing, shall we?"

As it happened, nothing was. Whatever our unwanted visitors had been looking for, they hadn't found it. Nor had it been a slash-and-burn type of search; in fact the intruders had been remarkably tidy. If they hadn't missed the closet door (Careless? Or spooked by noises in the hall?) we might never have known; but armed with that clue, the little differences began to add up. The items we had unpacked into drawers and onto hangars had been disturbed. Not grossly; everything was approximately where it had been. But they had been disturbed.

By the time we finished, my claws were fully expressed and my tail lashing. What I felt was an equal mix of anger and horror, that same violated sensation as when I discovered my palm-reader had been tampered with. "Who were they?" I snarled. "And what were they looking for?"

Dad held up his hand. "Calm down, please," he urged. "There's nothing we can do about it now."

He was right. I took a deep breath, regaining a degree of control over my appendages, and dropped heavily into a chair.

"That's better," Dad said. He sat down across from me. "As to who, we have two sets of suspects. Whoever it is that has Admiral Teeheek so upset--or Hammond's underlings, acting on his orders. I can make an equally good case either way. And as to what they were looking for--who knows? Maybe that." He indicated his own palm-reader. "I had it with me, though."

It figured: after admonishing me to hang onto my own reader at all costs, he would scarcely have left his lying around. "Earlier we wondered if someone was looking for information about the Haliday project," I said. "Doesn't everything that's happened today make that even more likely?"

Dad nodded. "Absolutely," he agreed. "It seems pretty clear that Admiral Teeheek fears a security leak. I'd even go so far as to say that she knows where the leak is: among the civilian contractors. Obviously, though, she lacks solid evidence--or else Hammond would already have made an arrest." He glanced around. "This tells me one of two things. If Hammond's people did it, then they really are desperate. And if it was someone else, then Hammond's security truly is ineffectual. Take your pick."

What would Mom be doing if she was here? I wondered. Like me--and by her own admission--she was a "fools rush in" type; it was something she'd been battling all her life. Probably she'd be wringing Hammond's neck, demanding answers. Unless Dad forcibly restrained her, which had happened more than once. But she'd be doing something. Stirring things up, causing trouble. Something. "So what do we do now?" I asked hopefully.

Unfortunately--or fortunately--Dad wasn't Mom. He shrugged. "Nothing," he said. "That's what we've been ordered to do. We stay here and mind our own business--and we wait to hear what Mr. Mazzaro has to say. In fact--" he stretched out his arms-- "I might even catch a nap. It's been a busy day."

I stared at him, incredulous. "You can sleep at a time like this?" I demanded.

He grinned. "First thing you learn at the Officer's Academy, my boy: never pass up an opportunity to sleep--or urinate."


Lieutenant Mazzaro arrived at precisely ten minutes after eight--and a good thing too, because by that time I was ready to climb the walls. Literally.

While I watched in growing disbelief, Dad made good on his threat: he kicked off his shoes, hung his jacket on the back of a chair, and stretched out on his bed for a nap. With little else to do, I tried to copy him…but half an hour later I gave up. For once my ability to sleep, anywhere, anytime, seemed to have abandoned me. Too many things were happening; too many thoughts tumbled through my mind, tripping all over each other in their haste. I simply could not relax.

Finally, in disgust, I sat up. "I know what's wrong with me," I muttered softly, in Sah'aaran. "I need exercise." The past few days had contained too much sitting around, too little real activity; that, no doubt, was at least half the cause of the jumpy, restless feeling that had gripped me. At home I would have taken batting practice, or gone for a long run on the beach; needless to say, neither option was available now. I'd have to make do. Stripping off my shirt and trousers, I slipped into a pair of black elastic-waist shorts, with the letters "PG" stenciled in yellow on one leg. I'd brought them along for just such an emergency. I lowered myself to the floor then, and for the next hour, while my father dozed, I put myself through a mini-workout of pushups, sit-ups and other relatively quiet calisthenics. I didn't push myself as hard as usual: I still had to be careful of my side, which let me know in no uncertain terms if I attempted anything too acrobatic. Eventually, panting hard, I sat down cross-legged with my back against the foot of my bed. Temporarily at least, I felt a good deal better, in a way that sleep couldn't have accomplished.

While exercising, it was easy enough for me to clear my head, to concentrate on nothing but my breathing and my pounding heart; but afterward, as I sat gazing out at the multicolored perpetual night, my mind inevitably began to drift. I thought first about my sister. She'd been excited to accompany Mom to Quadria--but I'd had my doubts. A week in transit, give or take, followed by a week on a bleak and rather cold world, surrounded by scientists…Rae was nothing if not resourceful, though, and if--as I suspected--she found herself bored out of her skull, she could at least write about it. I wondered briefly if she missed me as much as I missed her. Probably she did--though she'd hotly deny it if anyone asked.

Then there was Mom herself. Despite many years of practice, she absolutely loathed public speaking. Most likely she'd been very poor company during the outbound trip, spending most of her time bent over a palm-reader, endlessly revising and re-revising her speech. I'd seen it happen time and again. If Rae wasn't careful, she'd get her ears laid back--though Mom would apologize eventually. I had a feeling too that my mother might not be entirely welcome at that conference. She might, in fact, be the proverbial ghost at the banquet.

…And finally, last but most certainly not least, there was Ehm'tassaa. It's inevitable, really, that I missed her most of all: among Sah'aarans there is no more powerful connection than bonding. Even the relationship of brother and sister or mother and son can't compete. When she told me she was leaving for Sah'aar…for a brief, crazy moment I considered forbidding her to go. Crazy, yes; quite apart from the fact that she was still a minor--as was I--and went where her parents told her to, she was by no means my property. She might just as well have commanded me to accompany her. (And why was I wishing she had?)

What's she doing right now? I wondered suddenly. I had no idea how Centaurus Minor time zones related to those on Sah'aar, specifically the city of Sah'salaan, and I felt too lazy to get up and ask the computer. She could be just about anywhere: asleep in her bed; out shopping with her mother; eating lunch on the terrace. Wherever she was, though, whatever she was doing, I knew, with a certainty that had nothing to do with my extra-large ego, that she was thinking about me. I found that thought distinctly comforting.

…When I considered my present circumstances, though, all I got for my trouble was a headache. Too many facts, too many happenings…and too few threads tying them together. My workout had left my side slightly sore, and I massaged it gently as I thought.

First, of course--and dearest to my heart, if that's the right way to put it--was Mayer. I hated to disagree with Dad, because he was usually right, but I found myself unable to so easily discard the revenge theory. Maybe Mayer had indeed had no reason to hate Mom twenty-five years ago…but times change, and so do people--and he'd had an awfully long time to brood. He'd know who was really to blame, Dad said--but Antilles and the others were out of Mayer's reach. I, on the other hand, and Mom by extension, hadn't been. Perhaps Mayer snapped at the very moment Dad introduced me to him. One thing seemed certain: the phantom voices were a ruse, an attempt to fool the Psych Boys. Perhaps for no other reason than sheer perversity.

Then there was my palm-reader. Separated from me by Mayer's attack, and out of my hands for almost an entire day. But who could have known that? Only one person I could think of: the Security officer, barely glimpsed, who had confiscated my jacket and shirt. What had she done with them? Given them to another officer, who then checked them into the evidence room. That was the easy answer--but could I be absolutely certain? At what point in the chain had my reader parted company with my ruined clothes? There was no easy way to know. And was it truly only a bizarre coincidence that connected the reader to Mayer?

And finally, there was the Isaac Haliday. For a project of that importance to be so suddenly canceled--well, postponed, anyway--was unprecedented in CF history, as far as I knew. At that very moment, I knew, every media outlet in the Alliance, from the Terran News Service to the Xerxian InfoNet, would be buzzing with the story. It was a batch of bad publicity the Combined Forces needed like a case of Ehm'tarr parasitic dysentery. Whatever was going on, was--had to be--huge.

I'd been a little irritated at my father, for napping when things were going on all around us; especially when I knew that Mom would have been wide awake, and giving every official in sight reason to hate his life. But on sober reflection, I'd begun to understand the reasons behind Dad's caution. Hammond was suspicious of us already, and was being held in check only by Admiral Teeheek's "benefit of the doubt." If that broke down, Dad and I could find ourselves in the brig. We didn't have Mom's power to ask impertinent questions and stir up trouble with impunity. If we wanted to remain at liberty, we'd have to proceed cautiously. Even the meeting with Mazzaro would be risky, though hopefully we could maintain plausible deniability…

When Dad finally woke, I was still sitting there, gazing out at the slowly shifting light-show that was the Fabrication Center. I heard his breathing change gear (translation: he stopped snoring), and I glanced over to see him sit up, rubbing his eyes. "Back among the living?" I asked with a grin.

"Don't begrudge an old man his rest, son," he said indistinctly. "When you're thirty-five years older, you'll understand." He ran his hand across his scalp, and smoothed his beard. "Did I miss anything?"

I shrugged. "Not much," I told him. "A division of Chrysaoan shock-troops took over the planet, is all."

"Good, by God!" he said vehemently. "Sometimes I think I'd rather deal with the Jellies than the Combined Forces. With them at least you always know where you stand."

I climbed to my feet, and immediately wrapped my arms around myself. I'd gotten a little stiff sitting there, and a little chilly too. The Fabrication Center's air conditioning was set a little low for my taste. Though actually I should be counting myself lucky: outside, the air temperature would be somewhere on the low side of minus thirty Celsius. A torrid summer evening on Centaurus Minor, yes.

"Dad," I said, reaching for my shirt, "what would happen if I refused to testify against Mayer?"

"Well," he said, "I don't imagine Admiral Teeheek or Commander Hammond would be any too pleased."

"That's not exactly what I meant. Would I…end up in jail? For contempt of court, or something?"

"Maybe," he said seriously. "Depends on how mad Teeheek got. If they subpoenaed you, and you refused--" he broke off then, and his eyes narrowed. "Wait a minute," he said. "You aren't actually thinking of doing that, are you?"

"Uh--actually, yes," I said. "I was."

"Why, for God's sake?"

"Because…I don't want to be involved any more, Dad. I was telling the truth this morning when I told Dr. Zriss I don't care what happens to Mayer, as long as he's far away from me. And whatever else is going on, isn't our business. Admiral Teeheek is right. We should just butt out, mind our own business--and go home."

He crossed over and took my arm, and together we sat down on the foot of my bed. "That doesn't sound like Ehm'ayla's genes at work," he said with a smile.

Yeah, well, maybe it's some of Sah'larrah's, I thought--but of course I didn't say so. "It isn't our business," I insisted.

He sighed and shook his head. "Tom, leaving aside Mayer--he's headed to a psychiatric hospital, no matter what we do or say--whatever else is going on most certainly is our business. It's everybody'sbusiness."


He grinned. "I could hand you the standard 'good citizen' line, or I could quote you the old poem about 'when they came for me, there was no one left to speak up.' But you know all that. At least I hope you do, or your mother and I have utterly failed." He paused. "But that's not the point. Oddly enough, it's Mayer himself who got me thinking about this. Twenty-five years ago I let something slide, because I figured it would go away if I did. I was wrong, and someone I love got hurt as a result." He grasped my hand. "You're Sah'aaran; I'm not. You can be horrified at the prospect of losing your claws, but you can't know what it would be like--not really. I can't know either, and I can't even really imagine. But your mother does know. And in a quarter of a century, the shame has never completely worn off. I know; I'm the one who sleeps with her, and when she has nightmares, I'm the first to find out. I still don't know if I could have prevented that from happening--in fact I doubt it--but I sure as hell know I should have tried, no matter the cost."

He turned aside, suddenly embarrassed. "Dad, I'm sorry," was all I could find to say.

He smiled. "Don't be," he said. "But now you understand where I'm coming from. All these years, I've lived fairly quietly. I've never encountered another situation like Raven. Now I have--and this time I'm damn well not going to stick my head in the sand. I owe that to your mother--and to the memory of poor old Henry Morada."

"So?" I prompted.

"So…Mayer's a lost cause, as I said. When they convene the court-martial, the best thing you can do is just tell them what happened. They've got the video; they might not even bother to cross-examine. And then they can send him wherever they choose. But in the meantime, we listen very carefully to what Mazzaro has to say."

I sighed. "All right."

He clapped my shoulder. "Good," he said. He glanced at his chrono. "We've got a few hours before he gets here--how about some dinner?"

Hungry as I was, I'd been dreading going to the Officer's Mess, because some of Dad's colleagues were certain to be there, having their final dinner before being evicted. The last thing I wanted was to sit through a series of endless, pointless discussions on the theme of What Went Wrong. And indeed, as we arrived we saw many of the suddenly unemployed engineers scattered around the room, individually and in small groups. But oddly, none of them seemed anxious to talk; in fact the majority rather pointedly turned their backs to us.

Dad grinned knowingly. "It appears we've become pariahs," he observed.

"Why?" I asked.

He shrugged. "They probably saw us being taken out of line by Lieutenant Mazzaro," he said. "And most likely they've heard we haven't been kicked off the planet. They probably think we're informants--or that we're about to be arrested for treason."

I almost stumbled. "Don't say things like that," I begged.

…But as usual, there was an exception to the rule. Dad and I carried our trays to a table near the windows, as far removed from the other engineers as we could get. As we ate, though, I gradually became aware that we were being watched.

He sat alone at a table some four or five meters away. A strange little man (as if I could call any human "little"), he was obviously a civilian. He wore a dark suit of angular cut, several years out of fashion; his face was pale and his features small, almost sharp, and he had short black hair and a pencil-thin mustache. I could see him, in profile, though Dad could not; and it didn't take me long to notice that his narrow dark eyes were straying frequently to my father, drilling into Dad's back every bit as intensely Mayer's laser torch.

Finally I could stand it no longer. Gazing down at my half-eaten steak, I whispered, "Dad--don't look now, but who is that guy?"

Right on cue, Dad dropped his napkin, and as he bent to retrieve it, he took a quick glance back. "Edwin Lummis," he told me quietly. "He runs Noyo Engineering." He chuckled. "He and I got into quite a battle some years ago, over those Darwin-class courier vessels. You remember Cuvier, the ship we took to Sah'aar last year?"

I nodded. "Vividly."

"About halfway through the design phase he altered his plans for the power couplings," Dad went on. "I found out by accident--and I really had to hustle to redesign the life-support system to match. I always half-suspected he did it deliberately." He paused. "Why do you ask?"

"Because he's been staring at you for the last fifteen minutes."

Dad chuckled. "Has he really?" he said--but nothing more.

Eventually the man seemed to reach a decision. He rose and took his tray to the disposal unit--but afterwards, instead of heading for the door, he angled suddenly toward our table. Drawing near, he cleared his throat. "Hello, Joel."

You really have to admire my father: he actually managed to sound surprised. "Oh--hello, Ed. How are you?"

"Fine," Lummis said sourly. "Just fine." He waved a hand at the table's single unoccupied chair. "May I?"

"Please," Dad said pleasantly. And then, as Lummis seated himself, Dad nodded at me. "Ed, I don't think you know my son Tom."

Lummis barely glanced at me. "Pleased," he said shortly, sounding anything but. Then he turned his attention completely to Dad. "Do you have a moment, Joel?"

Dad shrugged. "Time isn't currently one of my problems," he said. "Now money, on the other hand…"

"You and me both," Lummis said. He shook his head. "Have you ever known the CF to pull something like this?"

Dad shook his head. "Can't say I have."

Lummis glanced around, then leaned closer. All around us, the engineers were becoming interested, casting sidelong glances at our little tableau. Dad, rather pointedly, took no notice. "Rumor has it they have security problems," Lummis said, his voice dropping to a conspiratorial whisper.

Dad returned his gaze steadily, his expression blank. "Do tell."

"--And that you're not leaving the planet."

Dad sighed. "Ed, you're wasting your time. I have no more idea what's going on than you do. My son needs to testify in a court-martial on a totally unrelated matter. That's all."

"Oh, don't give me that, Abrams!" Lummis snapped, suddenly angry. "You've been using your influence with the CF to get choice contracts for twenty years. And now I'm supposed to believe it's just a coincidence that we're being dismissed, and you're not? Don't make me laugh. Something is going on here, and you're part of it. You might as well admit it."

Dad shrugged. "Whatever may or may not be going on," he said, "has nothing to do with me. Sorry."

Lummis shook his head sadly. "All right, Joel. Be that way; I don't care. But I'll give you fair warning." He pointed out into the room, where the engineers were now openly staring, and straining to hear. "All of us who were at that meeting today--we're going to sue the Combined Forces. Breach of contract."

"Good luck," Dad said. "The CF has never been successfully sued in its entire history."

Lummis' face darkened. "Be that as it may," he said. "What I want to say is this: you're either for us or against us, Joel. And if you're against us…you'll never work with any of us again."

Once again Dad gazed at him in silence for a moment, his expression shading from amusement into disgust and back again. "And if I'm with you," he pointed out mildly, "I'll never work for the CF again." He shook his head. "I'm sorry, Ed. I can't join a lawsuit against the Combined Forces. You know that as well as I do."

"Because you'll lose your insider status?" Lummis sneered.

"No," Dad explained patiently, "because my wife--a CF commodore, Ed--would kill me. And I couldn't blame her: it would put her in a completely untenable position. I'm not happy about this either--but from where I stand, the best thing to do is to simply let it go. I'm sorry if that sounds disloyal--but when you've all calmed down, I think you'll agree with me."

Briefly Lummis sat glaring--then, without another word, he stood and left. Shortly thereafter our audience lost interest and went back to their dinners.

Some time later I said, "Uh, Dad? Didn't that…bother you at all?"

"What, that half-assed threat?" he said. He chuckled. "Not hardly. Their lawsuit will go nowhere--and engineers have notoriously short memories. It'll blow over."

I was glad he could be so nonchalant; myself, I had doubts. Did this too have something to do with being thirty-five years older than me? Probably. Was Dad exacting his belated revenge for that Darwin business? Definitely. With a sigh, I returned to my steak. Maybe I should have gone with Ehm'tassaa…


Mazzaro, it seems, had spent his entire shift on patrol, rather than behind a desk: when he arrived at our door he was still in full combat armor, minus his stinger-rifle but with his helmet under his arm. As Dad opened the door the lieutenant ducked in quickly, clearly afraid of being seen. "Did you think I'd actually show?" he asked with a tired smile.

"To be honest, no," Dad said. We seated ourselves, Dad and Mazzaro facing each other across the table, and me cross-legged on the foot of my bed, as quiet and unobtrusive as I could make myself. Dad punched up coffee, and as he handed Mazzaro a steaming cup, he said, "Before you begin, Lieutenant, there's something you need to know."

Taking a long, grateful sip, Mazzaro nodded. "I think I already know what it is," he said. "But go ahead."

"Just this," Dad said evenly. "If you've been sent here as a provocateur--to trap my son or me into saying something incriminating--then you can get the hell out, now. I don't play those kinds of games, and I'm not terribly fond of anyone who does."

Mazzaro smiled thinly. "Believe me, Mr. Abrams, I understand your concern--no one better. I can only ask you to believe: that's not why I'm here. And nobody 'sent' me--apart from myself, that is. I told you earlier that I want you to know the truth. I've had a few hours since to think about it--and I haven't changed my mind. Very much the opposite."

Dad hesitated, peering closely at the younger man. Then he nodded. "All right--we're listening."

Mazzaro took a deep, shaky breath. "It's hard to know where to begin," he said. Dad, as promised, gave no encouragement, but simply waited, and finally the lieutenant went on. "I've heard lots of rumors since the meeting this afternoon." He smiled. "Probably you have too. All the engineers are up in arms; some of them are even threatening to sue. The buzz is that the CF suspects espionage--but that's not true. Not quite."

Dad and I exchanged a quick glance. "That would have been my first thought as well," Dad said carefully. "If I'd actually been thinking about it, that is."

Mazzaro nodded. "It's the obvious inference, isn't it?" he agreed. "A major construction project, the new flagship of the Survey…The Haliday isn't a Navy vessel, and it will be completely unarmed…but still, it will be packed with new technology--to boost its range and flat-space speed--and that could be applied elsewhere." He shook his head. "But that isn't what the CF fears. In fact what they suspect is terrorism."

Dad blinked. "Meaning what?" he asked. Despite his earlier resolve, he was being drawn into the conversation, almost by force. So too was I; but I remained silent, letting Dad speak for us both.

"The design meetings," Mazzaro said. "The ones that ended so abruptly this afternoon. They came within a millimeter of being canceled before they even began. As late as a week ago, Admiral Brewer of Security was investigating rumors that the gathering would be disrupted--violently."

"By whom?" Dad asked.

"That's what took me a long time to discover," Mazzaro said. "And I'm still not certain I have the right answer. HQ doesn't share information willingly…"

Dad nodded. "That I know."

"But," Mazzaro went on, "both Commander Hammond and Admiral Teeheek have recently been requesting information about a group that calls themselves the Planetary Preservation Society."

Dad gasped, and my claws expressed. Involuntary reactions--but Mazzaro couldn't fail to notice. His eyes narrowed. "I take it the name means something to you?"

Dad nodded heavily. "Yes," he said. "It does--unfortunately. What do you know about the PPS, Lieutenant?"

"Virtually nothing," Mazzaro said. "I know that they're some kind of radical environmental group, and that most other organizations of that type don't associate with them."

Dad nodded. "That's a start," he said. "The PPS has been around for a long time--almost as long as the Alliance, in fact. And they've never been popular with the powers that be. Their position is that the Alliance has no right to colonize any world with a functioning biosphere--even if that planet has no intelligent life."

Mazzaro blinked. "Why?"

"Because when a colony goes up, the local flora and fauna is always damaged--if not actually destroyed. At best the indigenous life-forms end up restricted to a few nature preserves, while introduced species take over their former habitats."

Mazzaro nodded thoughtfully. "I suppose they do have a point. So what do they want? A complete end to colonization?"

"Almost," Dad said. "They're big promoters of terraforming, and of space-stations, bubble-worlds, asteroid colonies and Dyson spheres."

"I see," Mazzaro said. He grinned. "And I can understand why their views aren't popular with the government. But from what I hear, CF Security seems to regard them as terrorists."

"As does the Terran Police," Dad said. "And most other law-enforcement agencies. To my knowledge the PPS has never committed any acts of terrorism--but they've certainly advocated such, to the point where they might well be considered responsible. Over the years they've grown increasingly radical."

"You seem to know quite a bit about them," Mazzaro said, a little too casually, and Dad shrugged.

"I keep up with the news."

Mazzaro smiled. "I suspect there's a little more to it than that." He paused. "Yesterday afternoon, Commander Hammond requested a personnel file from HQ on Terra--he had Admiral Teeheek's authority. The file was Commodore Ehm'ayla's."

Dad nodded. "I was afraid of that," he said. "And it convinced him that there's a connection between her and the PPS, right?"

"Yes," Mazzaro said. "Which you're under no obligation to explain," he added quickly.

Dad smiled wryly. "But if I don't, this discussion goes nowhere." He paused for a moment, looking out into the long night, then went on, "My wife does not belong to the PPS. Never has. Nor do I, nor any other member of either of our families. But she does sympathize with some--some, mind you--of their core beliefs. So do I. The Alliance has destroyed the natural biology of a number of worlds, and I'm not at all sure we have the right to do so. But neither she nor I would ever advocate violence."

"Of course not," Mazzaro said.

"But yes, there is a more direct connection," Dad said. "A planet in the Benideel sector--it's cataloged as CAO 11378/4, but these days it's known as New Sah'aar. My wife and I were aboard the first ship to survey it, twenty-five years ago. It's quite a paradise, too, or was: a lot like central Africa some centuries back. Thousands of square miles of savanna, huge herds of grazing animals. Ehm'ayla was quite taken with the place, and her survey report recommended that it be left alone. Not that there was much chance of that happening, of course.

"About ten years ago, the PPS contacted her," Dad went on. "Her own people had begun to colonize that planet, and the Society wanted to stop them. She knew next to nothing about the PPS then, and she agreed to write an article for one of their publications, describing the planet as she'd seen it, and expressing her opinion that it shouldn't end up--as she put it--'hip-deep in maxigrazer droppings.' But when the Admiralty heard about that paper, they came down on her hard."

Sitting quietly in the shadows, I found myself nodding agreement. I remembered the episode clearly, though my sister and I had been first-graders at the time. Up until the Undercity affair, it was the only serious trouble Mom had been in since Raven. She was opinionated, and never shy about expressing her feelings--but at the time she'd still been a commander, without the authority and autonomy she enjoyed now. All unknowing, she had lent support to an organization that advocated violence--and that, the Admirals could not allow. It was among the hardest things she'd ever done, but in the end she swallowed her pride, publicly denounced the PPS, and repudiated that article. But that wasn't the end of it. Not quite. Recently--very recently--New Sah'aar had entered her life again, in a way that simply could not be a coincidence. Dad was thinking that too--I could tell that by the set of his jaw--but he wouldn't say so. Not in front of Mazzaro.

"I can't believe that's still on her record," Dad went on. He shook his head and chuckled. "Yes, I can. So Security believes the PPS intended to disrupt the design meetings?"

The lieutenant nodded. "That's what I've been able to piece together," he said. "Please don't ask me what their evidence was--I have no idea, not yet anyway. But obviously, they took it seriously: enough so to consider canceling the meetings. Both Commander Hammond and Admiral Teeheek advocated just that."

"So why didn't they?" Dad asked. "New evidence that refuted the danger?"

Mazzaro grinned and shook his head. "Nothing that simple," he said. "They were overridden by the Admiralty, after protests by Admiral Chuulah. Officially, it was something about 'not giving in to terrorism.' But the real reason was public relations--and Chuulah's pride, of course."

Dad's eyebrows rose. "So he and the Admirals were willing to put more than two hundred lives in danger to save themselves embarrassment?"

"Basically," Mazzaro said. "Officially speaking, though, there was another reason: Security hoped to catch the terrorists in the act."

"Meaning that the saboteurs were expected to arrive with the engineers?"

Mazzaro spoke slowly, choosing his words with care. "From Security's point of view," he said, "that would be the obvious inference too. Those who work here--CF and civilian--have had their backgrounds thoroughly checked. The engineers hadn't--at least not so assiduously."

My mind flipped back to the day of our arrival, and the desk lieutenant Dad had been obliged to threaten with the name of Commodore Ehm'ayla. So that's it, I thought. That's what he'd meant, when he said it was his job to question the unusual. And why Mom's name had gotten us past him.

"And?" Dad prompted.

Mazzaro shook his head. "Nothing," he said. "Every engineer was ID-scanned. All of them were who they said they were--or if they weren't, it was beyond our ability to detect. And so the meetings went on--but I can assure you, everyone involved was being carefully watched, and the auditoriums were constantly scanned for weapons or explosives."

"So what happened?" Dad said. "Obviously you were coming up empty. What changed?"

"Several things happened," Mazzaro said. He nodded at me. "First, the attack on Tom. For a brief time, Commander Hammond genuinely believed that Mayer had somehow located a real live terrorist. It was only after he viewed the security tape that he dropped the notion." He shook his head again. "Not that it ever made sense, of course. But for a while, Hammond was actually angrier with your son than with Mayer--because Tom was entirely innocent. Believe me, Hammond is nervous as hell, having all those civs under his protection. He can't guarantee their safety, and he knows it. That's a big part of what happened today."

"Then Mayer truly isn't connected to what's been going on?"

"Apparently not," Mazzaro said. "He was just the catalyst. You believe he was out for revenge; the Psych Boys think he's just plain nuts. Neither Teeheek nor Hammond cares which; they just want to be rid of him, as fast as possible."

I'm with them on that, I thought.

"And the other thing that happened," Mazzaro went on, "was your son's palm-reader."

"Right," Dad said, glancing back at me. "That damned palm-reader. Who did tamper with it? And why?"

Mazzaro smiled sardonically. "Depends," he said. "Which time do you mean?"

Dad's jaw dropped. "Pardon me?"

Mazzaro crossed his arms and leaned back, his eyes narrowing in concentration. "The best way to begin might be by giving you the timeline," he said. He took a deep breath. "Tom was injured three days ago, just before twelve hundred. An hour later, give or take, Lieutenant Stewart ordered one of our juniors--Ensign Holdt--to confiscate Tom's jacket and shirt for evidence. As I recall, you had no objections…"

Dad nodded. "That's right. They were ruined, and Tom didn't yet realize that he'd left his reader in a pocket."

Mazzaro nodded. "Holdt doesn't have access to the evidence room, so she turned the items over to the duty officer, who--as it happens--was Lieutenant Commander Kincaid, Hammond's second-in-command. Kincaid looked the clothes over before he locked them away--more thoroughly than Holdt had--and discovered the reader. Hammond wasn't available just then; he was upstairs with Admiral Teeheek and yourselves. So Kincaid decided to lock up the reader with the rest. A little later, when Hammond returned to his office, Kincaid told him what he'd found. Kincaid figured--correctly, of course--that the reader had been taken by accident, and he wanted to know if he should return it to Tom."

"So Hammond knew it was there?" Dad asked pointedly.

"He did," Mazzaro confirmed. "He and Kincaid both knew--but only them. I'll come back to that.

"When Kincaid mentioned this to Hammond, the commander suddenly became very interested. This, remember, was before he'd interviewed Mayer, and the motive for the shooting was still a complete mystery--at least so far as Hammond was concerned. He knew your son's reader had been used in closed-door meetings, and he decided to see what kind of notes Tom had taken."

"Why?" Dad asked.

Mazzaro sighed. "The commander still couldn't free himself from the notion that Mayer had caught Tom doing something illegal. Ridiculous, yes--but for someone like Hammond, easier to believe than a renegade CF officer."

Dad nodded. "I know the type," he said quietly. "Go on."

"Well, this is where it gets strange," Mazzaro said. "Hammond and Kincaid got the reader from the evidence room, and found out that Tom had it password-protected. So they took it to our top encryption expert, Lieutenant Westbrooke. She had a few ethical problems with trying to break the password, but in the end Hammond flat-out ordered her to. She tried--but she couldn't manage it either."

There in the background, I smiled. No imagination, I thought. What they'd really needed was a good linguist. A palm-reader belonging to a Sah'aaran; why assume that the password would be in Terran--or even the Terran alphabet? Nor was it just a random word, but rather the hieroglyphic rendering of the name of my half-brother, the six-month-old son of Sah'larrah and Ehm'teel.

"Hammond was livid," Mazzaro was saying. "He was absolutely certain Tom was up to something; maybe he'd gone to the museum with the purpose of meeting someone, and passing information. I won't comment on the logic of his argument, but it ran something like this: if Tom had nothing to hide, why did he need an extra-secure password?"

"So what did Hammond do?" Dad spoke mildly, his face all but expressionless--but I recognized the steely glint in his eye. I was a little less adept at hiding my emotions, but neither my father nor Mazzaro paid any attention to my writhing tail.

"He locked the reader in the safe in his office," the Security man said. "He figured you or Tom would come for it--and when you did, he was going to demand that you open the files."

"A request of dubious legality," Dad commented. "So what changed his mind?"

"Nothing," Mazzaro said. "It was about twenty hundred when Hammond locked the pad in his safe, and went to his quarters. Only Kincaid knew what he'd done. They expected you to retrieve it--but they also expected the officer on duty to get Hammond's permission before turning it over. They didn't think Neil would act on his own authority. That's why they busted him, by the way, and that's why it was so unfair. He had no idea what was going on, and he was officer of the watch. He did have the authority to get the reader for you, and he knew of no reason why he shouldn't. Suspending him from duty was pure retaliation."

Dad shook his head. "Lieutenant, you've lost me. Stewart took us to the evidence room--and the reader was right there, in the box with the ruined clothes, in the same pocket Tom remembered leaving it in. But now you're telling us it was locked in Hammond's office--?"

Mazzaro nodded. "Yes," he said. "And that's the really strange part--and what led directly to what happened this afternoon. When Hammond arrived at his office the next morning, the reader had vanished from his safe."

"What?" the word was forced from my throat as well as Dad's, despite my resolve to stay quiet.

Mazzaro smiled grimly. "Commander Hammond was frantic," he said. "And it's easy to imagine why. His office door has a thumbprint lock, his safe is opened by a retinal scan, and there's a security camera in the corridor outside. Whoever did this got past all of that, without leaving a trace."

"I can well understand his state of mind," Dad observed. "What then?"

"Well, he had a dilemma on his hands too. As I said, only he and Kincaid knew that the reader had been in his office. If he wanted to start a search, first he'd have to admit that he'd had it, which he was reluctant to do. In the end, he ordered Kincaid to conduct the investigation himself--quietly. But of course the one place Kincaid would never think to look was the evidence room."

Dad nodded. "The Purloined Letter."

"Exactly. And in the meantime, you and your son arrived--and Stewart, in all innocence, walked into the evidence room and found the reader, right where it should have been."

Dad's eyes narrowed. "I'm beginning to understand."

"There's worse," Mazzaro said. "That was bad enough--and add to it the fact that the evidence room access log and security camera also showed nothing. But what really put Hammond over the top was when you told him the reader had been tampered with."

"Why?" Dad asked.

"Consider the circumstances," Mazzaro said. "Not only had someone been able to breach our security, but they'd also been able to crack a password that our top encryption expert couldn't. Someone who could do that, could do anything. Plant a bomb, smuggle in weapons, you name it--and we couldn't do a damned thing about it. And here we were with a building full of civilians. Hammond took his concerns to Admiral Teeheek--and the rest you know."

"I do indeed," Dad said. "And that they acted very much against the wishes of Admiral Chuulah. But from your tone, I take it you also don't approve of their decision?"

Mazzaro paused. "I'm of two minds," he said. "On the one hand, it's certainly true we can't risk all those lives--they shouldn't have been endangered in the first place. But on the other hand…well, think about it. CF Security believes that someone--maybe connected to the PPS, maybe not--wanted to disrupt the design meetings, and, by extension, the construction of the Isaac Haliday. If that's true--then haven't they succeeded? With scarcely any effort at all?" He glanced at me. "If it's any consolation, Tom, I doubt they ever wanted any information from your reader. They seemed to use it mostly as a prop--to demonstrate what they're capable of."

For a moment all was silence. I peered closely at Dad. Sometimes my father could be…inscrutable, I guess the word would be; it was often hard to tell exactly what he was thinking. Was he buying Mazzaro's story, or not? I honestly couldn't tell. Finally he said, "This afternoon in the elevator, you described the situation as 'deadly serious.' In what way?"

"Commander Hammond is convinced his problems will be over once your colleagues have left the planet," Mazzaro said. "Because he can only conceive of external threats. But I don't agree. That business with the reader--the way I see it, it had to be an inside job. Someone had access to the Security logs. The reader wasn't lifted from Hammond's office by the Hand of God; someone broke in and took it, and was able to completely erase their tracks. No outsider could have accomplished that. Hammond doesn't agree--but the prospect scares the hell out of me."

Dad considered that. Then he said, "Lieutenant are my son and I suspected of anything?"

"You're certainly being watched," Mazzaro said. "And your wife's service record has been examined very closely."

She'll love that, I thought darkly.

"--But no," he went on. "Right now, you're not suspected of anything specific. Which isn't to say Hammond won't keep looking, though."

Wonderful, I thought. Then I cleared my throat. "Dad?"

He turned. "Yes, Tom?"

I pointed at the closet door, and Dad nodded. "Thank you," he said. He turned back to the lieutenant. "My son just reminded me: we have reason to believe our room was searched this afternoon. Do you know anything about that?"

Mazzaro's thick eyebrows lifted, and he shook his head. "No," he said. He frowned. "My guess--and it's only a guess--is that Hammond ordered it. He may have had Kincaid do the job."


Mazzaro shrugged. "As I said, he's not about to stop looking for something to charge you with. Whatever is going on, the two of you keep getting pulled into it. And Hammond doesn't believe in coincidences."

Neither do I, I thought. Not any more.

Dad glanced at me and smiled. "If this keeps up," he said, "we might be joining Ed Lummis' lawsuit after all."

Mazzaro looked from Dad to me and back again. "So," he said, "now that you know everything I know--what do we do?"

Dad opened his mouth to reply. I don't know what he might have said (probably something along the lines of "who's 'we'?") but I never found out; because at that moment he was interrupted by a loud beep from Mazzaro's helmet--or rather, from the commpak mounted therein. "Security alert," a measured voice said. "Security alert. All personnel report immediately."

Our informant dropped his helmet onto his head. "Lieutenant Mazzaro, on my way." He stood. "It's probably nothing," he said. "But it might be a good idea if you two stay put."

Dad nodded. "We have no reason to go out."

"Good," Mazzaro said. He grinned. "And remember, I was never here." And with that he departed, double-time.

For a moment we sat silent. Then I said, "Well? Do we believe him?"

Dad shook his head. "I don't know," he said. "His story is plausible, in a fantastic sort of way. But we're not in a position to check his facts--and he does have an ax to grind: his friend Stewart's suspension."

I nodded slowly. "If what he's saying is true--then why didn't Commander Hammond grab my palm-reader this morning?"

"Probably because it would have been pointless," Dad said. "Fingerprints, DNA traces--they'd all have been obliterated by then. Hammond knows that. And he would have been forced to confess what he'd done." He smiled suddenly. "By the way," he said, "thanks."

"What for?"

"Not bringing up your mother's current whereabouts."

I shrugged. "I figured you'd prefer it not be mentioned." I paused. "But all the same--there must be a connection. Mustn't there?"

"Let's just say I'd be very surprised if there isn't," Dad said. "Exactly what it might be, though…"

While Dad and I were on Centaurus Minor, having the time of our lives, Mom and Ehm'rael were on Quadria, attending a conference on the future of the world known as CAO 11378/4--or, more commonly, New Sah'aar. The meeting had been called, by the President of the Alliance herself, to discuss issues of environmental degradation and habitat loss--and this time, with her authority as a CF flag officer behind her, Mom intended to pull no punches. I'd read part of the speech she planned to give; the only adequate word is "blistering." It would win her no friends in the Sah'aaran government--but that was not something with which she'd ever been overly concerned. "Should we warn her?" I asked.

Dad shook his head. "At this point," he said, "I doubt very much we could get a message out of this facility without it being read by Hammond. And in any case, what could we tell her?" He smiled. "For now, I think we'll have to rely on her not-inconsiderable ability to take care of herself."

We fell silent then, and we were still lost in thought when, some time later, the doorbell buzzed. As he rose to answer it, Dad frowned and glanced at his chrono. "Almost ten pm," he muttered. "Who in the world--?"

To our surprise, it was Mazzaro--but a very different Mazzaro from our informant of less than an hour before. Suddenly he was all business, his manner grim and distant, a scowl on his face and his hand resting on his stinger. Behind him stood a squad of Security officers, five in all. "Mr. Abrams," he said, as to a stranger, "would you and your son please come with me?"

Dad's eyes narrowed. "Why?" he asked. "Are we under arrest?"

"No, sir," Mazzaro said. "But Commander Hammond needs to speak to you immediately. There has been an…incident."

"What kind of 'incident'?"

Mazzaro hesitated for a long moment. Then he said, "Albert Mayer has escaped."