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.




"Tom? Son, can you hear me?"

I squeezed my eyelids a little tighter closed. Hallucinations, now? I thought in despair. Goddess, what next? All I wanted was to be warm, and for the pain to stop…

The realization came slowly, murkily: I was warm, and the pain had stopped--partially at least. My eyes flew open.

I found myself lying flat on my back on a narrow bed, covered to the chin with a heavy, quilted blanket, in a white-walled room that at first seemed intolerably bright. Over me, partially eclipsing the glowing ceiling, leaned my father. He gazed down at me anxiously, his hands gripping my shoulders. He looked haggard, much older than his fifty-five years, and his eyes were puffy and red, as from lack of sleep. I attempted a smile. "Hi, Dad."

Relief caused him to literally stagger, and he collapsed onto a rolling stool. "Thank God," he murmured. Then, louder, "How do you feel, son?"

"I'm all right--I guess." It was hard to talk; my throat felt scratchy, as if I'd swallowed a wire brush. No doubt I'd breathed a little too much sub-zero air. "Kind of sore. Uh--Dad, where am I?"

"The Medical Center," he said. He patted my leg. "You're going to be all right, Tom."

My eyes had adjusted by then, the rest of the room resolving out of the glare. It was a small, windowless space, with one bed and not much else. The monitoring equipment, occupying a cart to my right, beeped softly, reassuringly, to the cadence of my heartbeat, and for a moment I lay still, savoring that sound. I'm alive, I realized to my surprise. The Goddess only knows how, but I'm alive! Under the blanket I seemed to still be naked--or mostly--and thankfully, the bands around my wrists and ankles had been removed, leaving only bruises. My hands were encased in clumsy mittens of dermapatch--the left more thickly than the right--and my feet seemed to be similarly bundled. A tight wrapping of something wide and elastic around my ribcage completed the ensemble.

"Would you like some water, Tom?" Dad asked.

Suddenly I had a raging thirst. "Yes, please."

I lacked both the strength and the dexterity to do it myself. Dad held the glass in his left hand, and lifted my head with his right. I took the cool liquid in cautious sips, knowing better than to gulp. By the time I'd emptied the glass my heart was pounding, and black spots danced before my eyes. My body felt heavy, my muscles unresponsive; I doubted whether I could even sit up, let alone stand. I ached all over, a deep, dismal throbbing; and there were sharper pains too, in my hips and shoulders, my wrists and ankles--and most especially, my right side. In short, I felt like the Dark Ones had used me for a soccer ball. "Dad," I said uneasily, "how…uh…how bad was I hurt?"

"You're going to be all right," he assured me again. He shook his head. "But I won't lie to you--it wasn't good. You have two cracked ribs, torn muscles in your hips and shoulders, contusions on your wrists and ankles, a number of miscellaneous bruises…and even a touch of frostbite. It was worst on your fingers and toes, but there were--um--a few other areas too…"

"Goddess!" I said. I tried to throw aside the blanket, but Dad restrained me, with little effort.

"It's all right," he said. "It was minor; you didn't lose anything." He paused, and touched my left hand. "You'd also managed to cut your fingers pretty badly. The docs have treated your injuries, and everything's healing--but they've prescribed bed rest. Two or three days at least."

I leaned back, closing my eyes. "I'm with them on that." I looked across at him. "How long have I been here?"

He consulted his chrono. "About ten hours," he said. "We found you just after oh-two-hundred…"

"'We'?" I echoed, and he nodded tiredly.

"Commander Hammond and myself," he explained, "along with Lieutenants Stewart and Mazzaro. We had no idea where to start looking, and it might have taken us much longer, but someone in Ops finally realized that there'd been a large power surge in a supposedly unused dome several hours before. We broke the quarantine seal, and…"

He choked off, his voice disintegrating, and turned away, his shoulders suddenly trembling. I grasped his arm, as best I could with my padded fingers. "It's all right, Dad."

He grinned ruefully. "I think that's my line," he observed. He shook his head. "I've never seen anything so horrible in my entire life. When we found you hanging like that, not moving…I had no idea what had happened to you--I still don't know, actually--but I was absolutely sure you were dead. We had to bring in a lift to get you down; and then we discovered you had the control in your hand…" He trailed off, a questioning look on his face, and I chuckled.

"I didn't stop to think how it would look," I said. I shook my head. "Not that I would have had a choice either way."

"If you'd rather not talk about it now…"

I smiled. "And let you die of curiosity?" I sobered. "No. You need to know…and I need to tell."

Peering at me closely, Dad nodded. "Yes," he said. "I think you do. Go ahead--and take your time. I'm in no hurry."

I did. The story was complex--much more so than "Mayer shot me"--and took a while to tell. I had to pause frequently too, for sips of water and to catch my breath. As I spoke, sparing no details, I watched my father's face grow progressively whiter with horror.

Finally I concluded: "I guess that power surge they detected in Ops was when I turned on the heaters. I could wish they'd made the connection a little sooner…"

"Let me get this straight," Dad interrupted. "You put yourself back into suspension?"

I shrugged, which hurt. "I know I wasn't thinking clearly by then," I admitted. "But I really believed it was the only way. I had to get up where the warm air was."

"And give your poor father heart failure." He shook his head. "That does explain a lot," he went on. "Hammond and I couldn't figure out why you were hanging there with the control in your hand, or why you'd torn open that crate, or the line of blood you'd left across the floor."

Blood? Dad had already mentioned my cut fingers--and now, thinking back, I recalled slicing them on the sharp-edged lid of the carton. My hands had been numb, though, and I'd scarcely felt it; certainly I'd had no idea I was bleeding badly enough to leave a trail. Dad was right, though: not even Sherlock Holmes could have made sense of the clues I'd left. Especially since, by the time Dad and Hammond arrived, the temperature in the dome would have been back to normal.

Dad laid his hand on my shoulder. "Tom," he said seriously, "I've never believed in beating a dead horse. But honest to God, this knack of yours for finding trouble is going to get you killed before you reach eighteen. I know the first time wasn't your fault: you were minding your own business in the museum. But this was different. You knew Mayer was on the loose, and you knew he'd try again to kill you if he got the chance. But what do you do? Instead of telling me or Hammond about that message, you decide to play Sam Spade."

I turned away, unable to speak, and Dad went on, "That trick with the mag-lev was good thinking--but if it hadn't worked, we'd have found a corpse. This isn't a game, son; it's your life you were playing with. And not only yours: your mother's, your sister's, mine--and most especially your bond-mate's. What would Ehm'tassaa have done, if you'd gone and gotten yourself killed?"

I nodded. "I know," I said softly.

"Look at me," he said sternly, and I did. "I want you to swear to me that you won't go off on your own again. Until we leave this planet, wherever you go, whatever you do, either I or a security guard goes with you. Swear it."

I might have said something flippant, like, "What, even to the bathroom?"--but now wasn't the time. I circled my heart with the expressed claw of my right forefinger. "I swear."

He gripped my arm. "Good."

"Dad--" I began, and paused.

"Yes, Tom?"

"Dad, this might not seem very important compared to my life, but…when Mayer stripped me, he took everything. Clothes, ID, palm-reader, wrist chrono--everything."

"That's all right," he assured me. "It's all replaceable. We'll file a claim with the CF…"

I shook my head. "One thing isn't replaceable. Not ever."

He hesitated, then said quietly, "You mean your anklet."

I nodded. "Yes," I confirmed. "It's a Sah'aaran thing, I know…"

"I understand," Dad assured me. "Trust me, I do. I'm not Sah'aaran, but I do very much appreciate the importance of symbols. And I promise, we'll get it back. One way or another."

Unless Mayer tossed it down the mass recycler, I thought gloomily--but there was no point in saying so. "Thanks, Dad."

"You're welcome. I know it isn't ever supposed to be removed." He smiled faintly. "But what Ehm'tassaa doesn't know won't hurt her, right?"

Easy for him to say: I'd never had any better luck concealing things from her than he had deceiving Mom. I still had deep, fond memories of the ceremony, a little less than a year ago, when Tass and I simultaneously clasped those bands around each other's legs, symbolically sealing our bonding. If I did manage to retrieve mine, would putting it back myself feel the same? Or would waiting until I next saw Ehm'tassaa be even worse?

Dad's right, I told myself--though reluctantly. What she doesn't know won't hurt her. She was going to be upset enough when she heard my story; why add to it? It wasn't as if our bonding had broken; that at least was impossible.

Dad leaned back and frowned. "Mayer," he said grimly. "I knew we hadn't heard the last of him. And damn that idiot Hammond for letting him escape." He glanced at me, his eyes blazing. "Mayer is a dead man, Tom. As God is my witness, when I catch up with him, he's dead."

There was a pause; then I said quietly, "Dad--I want to go home."

He patted my knee. "We will, Tom," he promised. "Just as soon as we--"

"No," I interrupted. "Now. I don't care about finding Mayer, or figuring out why he keeps trying to kill me. I don't even care what else is going on. Let the CF take care of it. I just don't want to be on the same planet with it--with him--any more."

For a moment he gazed at me, an expression something like anger on his face. Then he leaned forward and embraced me. "I'll take you home, son."

But of course it wasn't that easy. Nothing ever is.


Dad wasn't able to stay much longer, before a highly-efficient, utterly ruthless nurse arrived and shooed him away. Though I was sorry to see him go, it probably wasn't a bad thing: seldom had I seen anyone so much in need of sleep. I only hoped he actually would go get some rest, rather than haranguing Admiral Teeheek or Commander Hammond for their shortcomings. As Dad departed, I caught a glimpse of the armored security guard in the corridor outside my room. I wasn't sure if that sight reassured me or not.

As soon as my father had gone, the nurse--a CF lieutenant, human, fortyish and sturdily built--went to work. Within two minutes she had changed my bed-covering to something lighter, gotten me into one of those disposable gowns that never seems to quite close at the back, and rubbed a med-patch into my neck. What it contained I didn't know, and I didn't ask. She was efficient, and her touch reasonably gentle; but her expression was implacable, and I got the distinct impression that foolish teenagers who almost get themselves killed could expect precious little sympathy from her. But then she brought me food, and all was forgiven.

I had not eaten in more than a day, and this time, even my sister would have agreed that I had the right to be hungry. Eating was exhausting--just sitting up was exhausting--and clumsy, too, with my hands wrapped; but it was either that or take it intravenously. Fortunately someone had been briefed on Sah'aaran nutritional needs: what I was brought was a large plate of liver, blood-warm and decently seasoned. I considered asking for coffee; but then I took another look at the nurse, and decided to settle for milk.

After I ate, I had to sleep again. I'd like to report that my slumbers were untroubled--but I can't. Which is hardly surprising, I suppose. Awake, I could manage to come off all brave and stoic, shrugging off my experiences as if I escaped from certain death every other Tuesday. But my subconscious wasn't quite so easily fooled. Time and again, in my dreams, Mayer strung me up; time and again I saw the leer on his face, the sadistic pleasure in his eyes, as he turned off the light and left me hanging. When I finally woke, about four and a half hours later, I did so with a start that painfully jarred my hips, shoulders and ribs. Beside the bed, the monitor beeped wildly in time to my pounding heart.

For a few minutes I lay still, practicing something halfway between biofeedback and Zen, and gradually the timpani in my chest slowed and settled. Just as well: I had a sneaking feeling that I knew what had been in that med-patch, and the last thing I wanted was for someone to decide I needed another--not now, when I had so much thinking to do.

Actually I did feel a little better after my nap, strong enough to make it to the tiny bathroom under my own power--though in retrospect, maybe I should have rung for a pan. By the time I returned to my bed I was breathing hard, which hurt terribly, and lightheaded almost to the point of passing out. You won't be hitting home runs anytime soon, bud, I thought ruefully, as I lay shivering. And: I'm sure glad Mom isn't here to see me like this. Though she might well have sympathized: she was rescued from her Hellhole with a set of cracked ribs.

Finally--when my dizziness had passed--I swiveled the computer terminal around on its jointed arm and poked at its small keyboard. As during my time in protective custody, I had access to very little of the Center's computer; but at the moment I wanted nothing more than a link to the Discovery Valley public library, and that was readily available. Trying to type with my mittened hands was annoyingly difficult, but eventually I managed to call up two issues of a certain periodical, known for its unconventional point of view: Habitats Quarterly.

It was of course a perfectly legal and legitimate publication; many people subscribed to it for the fine holography of distant worlds, and with no thought of endorsing the editors' radical political agenda. Between its "pages" you would find no incitements to violence; just art and science, and some slightly overheated rhetoric. There was no reason in the world why Mayer shouldn't read it, and the fact that he had proved nothing, in and of itself. But combined with other recent events, it certainly looked suspicious--and all the more so when you considered the contents of the two issues on which he'd been so fixated: the very two I had just called up.

I didn't waste much time on the later one, with its nasty and overblown editorial. I did have to chuckle as I skimmed it, though. Anyone who really knew my mother would never call her a "puppet" of either the Combined Forces or the Alliance. I had heard her criticize both, in no uncertain terms, many times. She'd backed down on that occasion, yes; but only because her career, and the oaths she'd sworn, were more important to her than any article. And too, Commander Ehm'ayla had enjoyed far less authority to defend her opinions than Commodore Ehm'ayla did now.

The article that spawned the controversy wasn't all that inflammatory. It was illustrated with images of CAO 11378/4, taken by Mom herself; she'd snapped them with the eyepiece camera of her scanpak, twenty-five years ago, simply because she appreciated that world's beauty. In the text she described what she had seen there, and what would be lost if settlement continued its breakneck pace. She also listed steps that could be taken to minimize the ravages of civilization. Try as I might, I couldn't find anything radical or subversive in her words or her conclusions. But that, of course, wasn't the point; had never been the point. And gazing at that scathing editorial, I began to wonder: had she been more valuable to the PPS as a writer--or a scapegoat?

As I lay there pondering, the door opened. I glanced up sharply, pushing the terminal away and flicking its "off" key. I expected to see a doctor or a nurse, there to check my condition--but in fact it was the security guard, a CF ensign. "Mr. Abrams," he said, "you have a visitor, if that's okay."

My eyes narrowed. Who in the world--? Certainly not Dad; he would have just walked right in. I shrugged. "All right."

The individual who entered was perhaps the last person in the universe I would have expected to see: Dr. Zriss, Professional Psychologist. She looked terrible and I realized that she must be just lately out of bed (or whatever) herself, having been seriously injured not more than three days ago. She wore a rather incongruous pink silk bathrobe, belted around her "waist." and a tight wrapping of bandage encircled her head like a turban. As she slithered through the door, gathering her coils beneath her and pushing herself forward a little at a time, I felt my claws express painfully.

"May I come in?" she asked softly, and I shrugged.

"It's your medical center."

She appeared not to notice my tone. She entered, closing the door behind her, and crossed the room slowly, draping herself across the rolling stool. "I'm told you're recovering from the injuries Mr. Mayer inflicted on you," she said. She spoke through tightly clenched teeth, and for an uneasy moment I wondered if she was angry with me--but then I realized that her fractured jaw must be wired shut.

"Apparently so," I said. "And you--?"

"Barely," she said flatly. "I still have blurred vision, and a partial loss of motor control. It isn't yet known whether I will ever fully recover." She peered at me with those alarming sanguine eyes, a little vague and wandering now. "You blame me for what happened to you, I see," she observed blandly.

I glanced aside. "No," I said. With an effort I made my claws go away. "My own stupidity caused that. I shouldn't have gone chasing after that message by myself."

"And I should not have agreed to see Mr. Mayer alone," the doctor said, with a faint, tight-lipped smile. "We may have some stupidity in common, you and I."

I bristled--then relaxed, and chuckled. After all, I'd used the word first. "Maybe I just inherited my mother's distrust of the Psych Boys."

"By no means unknown among Combined Forces personnel," Dr. Zriss commented. "They seldom recognize the importance of our work; they usually look no farther than the discomfort and inconvenience of our testing. If they stopped to think how much more endurable we make their lives…" she trailed off, shaking her head. "But that is beside the point."

Looking closely at her, I couldn't help but feel a stab of sympathy. Her jaw was massively swollen, its normal bright green darkened to avocado, almost like a Centaurii's scales. And the pinprick pupils of her blood-red eyes no longer pointed in the same direction. That couldn't be normal, even for a Hattosh. I said, "I don't imagine you're here to discuss the state of my health, or my opinion of psychiatrists."

"Indeed not," she said. "I am on a quest for knowledge. I was obviously badly mistaken in my assessment of Mr. Mayer, and I'd like very much to discover where I went wrong."

I shrugged. "I can tell you that in one word," I said. "Misdiagnosis."

"Oh really?" she said, with a jagged smile. "And when did you earn your psychology degree, Mr. Abrams?"

I felt the heat in my ears and nose. "All right," I said. "Point taken. But he has always been considered non-violent, right? Even after he shot at me? Isn't it true that you went into his room alone because you didn't expect him to attack you?"

She nodded, a quick bob of her entire upper body. "That is true," she agreed heavily. "For the past twenty-five years he has been closely watched, as you evidently know. At no time has he shown the slightest indication of violent tendencies--until that day in the museum. In custody he appeared entirely docile, almost apathetic. And no, I did not expect that to change. Certainly not so suddenly."

"I've also seen how much he changed," I said. "The day he shot at me, he was scared to death; he could barely hold the torch steady. It really did seem he was being goaded into it against his will. But last night…"

"Go on," she prompted softly.

The horror had again grasped me by the throat, and it was some time before I could continue. So close, I thought. If I hadn't known a little more about mag-lev than he thought I did… I swallowed hard. "Last night there was no trace of fear in him whatsoever," I said. "Very much the opposite: he was in a state of total self-confidence, a kind of…hyper-exhilaration. And…" I swallowed again. "His motive had shifted too. He wanted me dead--but not quickly or cleanly. He wanted me to suffer. And I think he wanted my father and my family to suffer too, imagining what I'd been through before I died."

Those last few words came out slightly slurred; I was losing control over my voice. To my surprise, I also found that I was trembling.

"I am sorry to put you through this, Tom," Dr. Zriss said gently, but I shook my head.

"That's all right," I told her. "It might be better this way--get it out of my system." I smiled thinly. "I imagine that's what Freud would have said, anyway."

She hissed softly, haltingly, a noise I took for a laugh. "I'm afraid dear Sigmund has been somewhat discredited of late," she said. "But you may be right." She shook her head. "It is exactly that sudden shift in behavior that I find so difficult to explain."

I nodded. "It's almost as if he was two different people," I said. "Especially when you consider the planning and preparation that went into that death-trap. Infinitely more than went into the attack in the museum."

Dr. Zriss' eyes narrowed. "Two different people," she mused.

"Meaning what?" I asked. "Multiple personality disorder?"

She shook her head firmly. "That's been discredited too," she said. "To my knowledge there are no genuine cases. The celebrated examples from 20th Century Terra turned out to be artifacts of hypnosis, and other 'diagnostic' techniques."

"The head injury, then? From when I slammed him into the display case?"

"Very minor," she told me. She touched the back of her skull, and winced. "I only wish mine were as inconsequential. No, that is unlikely as well."

I spread my arms helplessly. "What, then?"

"I'm not certain." She stared into space for a moment, then went on, "My mind keeps being drawn back to what he said after the first attack. He claimed he had been ordered to do it by Captain Antilles."

"My father thinks that was a lie."

"Of that I am aware," she said wryly. "But your father is not a psychiatrist either. In my professional opinion, based on my observations of Mr. Mayer's brain-waves and other physical indicators--as recorded during his interrogation--he truly believes he heard Antilles speaking to him."

I tried for nonchalance, but my tail gave me away. That was indeed a bit of news, and it threw our theories--old and new--out the window. "I…see," I said. "You're absolutely certain of that--?"

She shrugged. "As certain as I can be. My instruments are many times more sensitive than the 20th-Century Terran polygraph, but there is still a certain margin for error. And of course I cannot determine objective truth--only whether the subject honestly believes what he is saying."

I nodded. "So if Mayer's hallucinations of Antilles were strong enough to seem real…"

"…Then he would truthfully report that he had seen the captain," Zriss confirmed. She frowned. "But there is a complication," she went on. "He does not fit the general pattern of someone who experiences that sort of delusion."

"How so?"

She smiled. "I don't have time to teach you psychiatric medicine," she said. "So I'll have to ask you to trust me. There are indications we look for, in brain chemistry and bio-electric activity, and in behavior. The most common cause for severe hallucinations in humans is schizophrenia--and that was eliminated almost entirely, two centuries ago. We can be quite certain that is not what Mayer suffers from."

"Which leaves us--?"

"Extremely confused," she said. "Mayer genuinely believes he was ordered by Captain Antilles to kill you. It seems unlikely to have been a delusion. I must therefore wonder if his experience might not actually represent some sort of objective reality."

"But Antilles is dead!" I objected. "He died in a penal colony fifteen years ago."

"I know," she said. "But there are other forms of reality--including virtual."

I thought about that…and my eyes widened. "You mean somebody has been messing with his mind?" I asked, and she nodded.

"A distinct possibility," she said. "And there are many ways in which it could be accomplished."

"But who?" I said. "And why?"

She shrugged. "That is as far out on a limb as I'm willing to go," she said. "It may have had something to do with your mother's experience, twenty-five years ago; or it may be connected to this Center's current difficulties. Or both. I can't say."

I peered at her closely again, trying to read the expression in those glowing eyes. Did she know--or guess--more than she was saying? I simply couldn't determine. "Why are you telling me this?" I asked.

She seemed nonplused. "As I said, I want to know what went wrong. And…I can't help feeling a bit responsible. It was on my authority that Mayer was so lightly guarded; had that not been the case, both you and I might have suffered a great deal less pain."

I was scarcely listening. I'd asked that question not because I thought I'd get a meaningful answer, but mostly to buy time. My mind was spinning with the implications of her words. Could it be? I wondered. Mayer was a little unbalanced to begin with; that was undeniable. Could someone have been manipulating him, using him as a weapon--or worse, a decoy? And if so, who? And why? One thing was absolutely clear: I had to get this information to Dad, soon. Though exactly what he'd do with it, I had no idea.

Finally I shook myself free of my thoughts. "The more I hear," I said, "the less I think any of this was your fault."

She bowed sardonically. "Thank you." Then suddenly she winced, and pressed a hand to her forehead. "I fear you must excuse me, Tom," she said. "I need to lie down for a while."

"I understand," I assured her. "Believe me."

I watched in concern as she uncoiled herself and slithered away, hanging on freely to whatever stationary objects came to hand. And when the door had closed behind her, I pounced on the data terminal.


My next visitor was quite a bit less welcome: Commander Hammond.

To my annoyance, I wasn't able to contact Dad. It didn't appear that my access had been blocked, or anything as sinister as that. The call rang through to our quarters--but for some reason Dad didn't pick up. Either he was out of the room--at dinner, perhaps--or he was blocking calls while he rested. I recorded a message, asking him to call or visit as soon as possible; and then I lay back, my claws digging tiny holes in the bedcover. There wasn't much else I could do. Even if I'd had the strength to go searching, I had neither clothes nor collar--and I'd cut quite a figure running around the corridors in that backless paper gown. I'd simply have to wait.

It was about then that Hammond arrived. He didn't knock, and apparently he simply shoved the guard out of the way. He stormed in as if entering his own office, making me jump half a meter.

"Yes, certainly you may come in, Commander," I said, when I'd recovered. "Thanks for asking."

Even as I spoke, I knew I'd gone too far. His face went dead white with rage, and he stepped forward, his right hand rising and clenching into a fist. For a second I really thought he'd slug me, and I shrank back; but then he mastered himself and let the fist drop. His jaw worked soundlessly for a few seconds, then he growled, "You watch your mouth, boy. You're in enough hot water already. Do you have any idea how much trouble you caused me last night?"

Actually I did--but if he was expecting me to apologize, he'd have a long wait. There was too much Ehm'ayla in me. Holding his gaze steadily, I said, "What do you want, Commander?"

"What I want," he said, "is for you to understand the seriousness of your situation." He leaned forward, planting his fists on the edge of the bed. "If I had my way, you'd be in the brig right now, instead of sickbay."

My claws expressed. "On what charge?"

He ticked them off on his fingers, ostentatiously. "Entering a maximum-security area without clearance. Unauthorized access to confidential files. Obstructing justice. Destruction of CF property. Do you want me to go on? There's a lot more where those came from."

If his intention was to frighten me--and I'm sure it was--he'd succeeded. My heart was hammering, and my tail was skittering back and forth between my legs like a small panicked animal. Swallowing the lump in my throat, I said, "If you had your way. Meaning that you don't?"

His expression darkened, and his fist rose a few centimeters before dropping back. "Not yet," he admitted. He leaned forward again. "But don't think that can't change. I am Chief of Security for this Center, boy. The JAG prosecutor's office listens to me. If I call for charges to be filed--then filed they will be. You may be sure of that."

I truly believed he'd do it, and my future as a convicted felon stretched out bleakly before me; but then I looked into his eyes, and what I saw there made the majority of my fear evaporate instantly. I swallowed, summoning courage, and said, "What's this really about, Commander?"

He appeared startled, just for an instant; then his face closed down. "What do you mean?" he demanded.

"I mean," I said, for once choosing my words carefully, "with everything that's going on around here, I can't believe you took time out of your busy schedule just to threaten me. The CF has no interest in prosecuting me; I'm not worth the time or trouble. And you know as well as I do, you'd never make those charges stick."

"No?" he said mockingly.

"No," I said. "My mother has been in the CF for thirty-nine years; she has contacts in the Admiralty that you can only dream of having. She'll have those charges killed almost before they're filed. You know that too. No; the way I see it, the only reason you're here is because you want something from me--and you figure you can intimidate me into giving it to you."

Another stab of anger crossed his face--and then, incredibly, he began to laugh. He sat down, shaking his head, and still chuckling, he said, "They told me you were smart--though obviously not smart enough to stay out of trouble." He crossed his arms. "All right," he went on. "No more threats, no more games. Let's try cause and effect instead. You help me, I help you."

I shrugged. "I'm listening."

"Good enough." He leaned back. "Tom, I don't need to tell you that this Center is going to hell in a handbasket. You've seen it. There are things going on around here that I don't understand, and that's not a feeling I enjoy. And every time I turn around, I find you and your father smack in the middle of it. I don't like coincidences either--especially not in large quantities."

I had a nasty suspicion I knew where this was going--but I wasn't in the mood to give anything away for free. I said, "I don't quite understand what you mean, Commander."

"Then I'll spell it out," he said "I've had my eye on you and your father since you arrived. Frankly I thought it damned strange that a human man would bring a Sah'aaran boy into this facility--and especially that he should call that boy his son. And so I did some checking, and discovered some interesting things. First and foremost, I found out that Joel Abrams isn't your real father."

Great Goddess, I thought in despair, here we go again! How many times in our lives had my sister and I heard those exact same words? If we'd had a tenth-credit for every occasion…As calmly as I could, I said, "That depends on your definition, Commander. The male half of my genes came from Dr. Sah'larrah. But in every other way, Joel Abrams is my father--the only one I've ever needed or wanted."

Hammond shrugged. "I won't belabor the point," he said. "It isn't relevant anyway. But that fact led me to your father's Combined Forces record. I found it very interesting indeed that he was thrown out of the CF following a court-martial…"

I held up my hand to stop him, and yes, the tips of my claws were showing. "Hold on just a moment," I said. "If we're going to have a discussion, let's at least get our facts straight. My father resigned from the CF--he was not 'thrown out.' Yes, he was court-martialed and convicted after the Raven affair--but so were a number of others, on far more serious charges. He made a mistake, he paid the price, and he moved on."

Hammond waved that off. "Perhaps so," he said dismissively. "It's a minor point."

"Not to him," I said. "And not to my mother, my sister--or me."

"Which is exactly what I expected you to say," Hammond replied. "There is also an incident which took place last year, in which Mr. Joel Abrams misappropriated the use of a Navy vessel for the personal use of himself and his family." He leaned closer. "To be honest, Tom, when I look at your father I don't see a particularly trustworthy individual. In fact I see one who could potentially be involved in this Center's troubles."

He paused, but before I could interrupt--as I certainly would have--he went on, "You're right, of course: the CF has no interest in prosecuting you. In my opinion you're guilty of nothing more than over-enthusiasm. And loyalty, of course--which is perfectly understandable. As you say, Mr. Abrams is the only father you've ever known; it's only natural that you'd trust him."

"If you have a point, Commander," I said, "I wish you'd make it."

"All right," he said. "I will. Your loyalty is commendable, Tom--but don't let it destroy you. I believe Joel Abrams is a part of what's happening here. And if that's true, the best thing you can do, for yourself and for him, is to tell me everything you know, before he drags you down with him. You're young, Tom, and you have a fiancee, so I understand. Think what will happen to her, if you end up in prison along with your 'father.' What do you say, Tom? Can we help each other?"

For a long moment I sat silent, unsure whether to laugh in his face or claw it. Finally I said, "Is my father under arrest?"


"Is he charged with any crime?"

"No. Not yet."

I took as deep a breath as my ribs allowed. "Commander, my father is a good man. Many years ago he was thrust into a bad situation, and he handled it poorly. He'd be the first to admit that. But since that time he's been as good a citizen as you're likely to find. And if he knows how to work his CF contacts to get what he wants--well, he's in good company there, isn't he? He came to Centaurus Minor for the Isaac Haliday project, period. He is neither a spy nor a saboteur. And as for 'telling you what I know'…I just did."

He shook his head, a look of pity on his face. "Tom," he said, "two days ago, at the exact time that shuttle lifted off--the one that crashed--your father's whereabouts were unknown for more than two hours."

I froze. "What?"

Half-smiling, Hammond nodded. "I see you didn't know," he observed. "And I'm sorry to have to be the one to tell you--it gives me no pleasure, I assure you. But it's true. About an hour before the shuttle lifted off, Mr. Abrams left his quarters. He told the guard that he was going to the Officer's Mess--but we have no record that he arrived there. It was almost an hour after the accident that he returned to his room."

At least part of what he'd just said was untrue: the part about it "giving him no pleasure." That much I could see in his eyes. There are dozens of places Dad could have been, I told myself. Hundreds, even. I cleared my suddenly-tight throat, and said, "Have you asked him where he was, Commander?"

"Of course," Hammond replied. "He claims to have been taking a walk."

"Dad always walks when he has things on his mind," I supplied hopefully.

"Perhaps so," Hammond said, "but none of my personnel, stationed anywhere within this building that morning, remembers having seen him. No: for two hours it appears he vanished off the face of Centaurus Minor."

Suddenly I could take no more. "Get out," I said softly.

"I know you're upset, Tom," he said soothingly. "I would be too. But please understand that--"

"Get out!" I interrupted; it was halfway between a snarl and a scream. My teeth were bared and my hands raised, claws fully expressed through the bandages. And Hammond, seasoned Security officer though he was, started back violently, upsetting the stool with a crash. It was several seconds before he regained his composure. "We'll talk again later," he said--and then he turned and fled.


As soon as he was gone, I buried my face in my hands, and there I remained, trembling violently, until I heard the quiet rumble of a throat being cleared. "Tom? Are you all right?"

I looked up sharply. Tony Mazzaro, complete with armor and stinger-rifle, stood at the foot of my bed, gazing at me on concern. "What are you doing here?" I asked.

He smiled. "I'm glad to see you too," he replied. He sobered. "I'm your guard for the evening." He paused, then repeated, "Are you all right?"

I shook my head. "No," I said miserably, "I'm not. I just had a talk with Commander Hammond--"

Mazzaro grinned. "I know," he said. "I saw him leaving; he almost ran me over." He righted the stool and sat. "So--what did he say that upset you so much?"

I told him, briefly and bitterly, and by the time I finished he was nodding thoughtfully. "I heard about that," he said, "third or fourth hand. I hadn't had a chance to ask your father about it, though. And of course he might not have been disposed to discuss it." He peered at me quizzically. "You mean he didn't tell you where he'd been?"

"No," I said. "The subject never came up; I didn't even know it was an issue until Hammond mentioned it." I paused. "I don't know if Dad intended to tell me or not."

"And of course there are any number of perfectly innocent explanations," Mazzaro said. He grinned. "And the opposite as well. Apparently Commander Hammond believes your father was out sabotaging a shuttle."

I gazed at him challengingly. "And what do you believe?"

He removed his helmet and smoothed his hair. "Let's just say I seriously doubt he's a saboteur," he said. "I've seen his CF record, and I read about the Raven affair when I was in the Academy, though I doubt I know the full story. It's told as a kind of cautionary tale. I know the dilemma your father found himself in, and I understand why he made the choices he did. But none of that matters to Commander Hammond. He can't see past the fact that your father resigned, rather than staying in and taking his medicine. In Hammond's eyes, that places him beneath contempt."

"I know what you mean," I said. "Hammond has treated Dad like a lower life form since we first met him."

Mazzaro nodded. "The commander is a little like Inspector Javert in Les Miserables: one mistake and you're tainted for life." He leaned closer. "If you want my honest opinion, Tom, I don't think your father was taking a walk--but beyond that I can't say."

"I think…you may be right," I said. I swallowed. "I've been out of touch for a while," I went on. "Can you tell me what's been going on?"

He leaned back. "I think I can risk a few minutes away from my post," he said. "Let's see--where do I start? Your adventure last night put a number of things on hold--but there has been some progress. The shuttle crash is now officially a case of sabotage. Officially for us, I mean--not yet for the press or the public."

"How was it done?"

He paused, looking troubled. "You'll forgive me if I can't go into details…"

"Of course."

"…But in general terms, it involved the aft power couplings. The design of the shuttle is such that almost every system runs through them, which is why they have two backups ready to kick in instantly. Someone was able to knock out all three sets simultaneously. We think small explosive charges were used, and that they were set to go off when the shuttle had reached a certain altitude."

I nodded thoughtfully. I was by no means an engineer--not yet, anyway--but I'd hung around Dad enough to understand the implications of Mazzaro's words. Someone once noted that it's possible to design systems that are proof against accident or stupidity, but not against deliberate malice. Assuming proper maintenance, the chances of all three sets of couplings failing at the same time was virtually nil. But if someone took them out…Who would know that? I asked myself. And who would know how?

There seemed only one reasonable answer--but I didn't have time to dwell on it, because Mazzaro was still speaking: "Our friend Mayer is still at large--and I'm afraid we haven't found any of the things he stole from you. But our engineers have been examining the equipment he used in his death-trap."


Mazzaro grinned. "Ingenious--if you'll forgive me for saying so."

I growled softly. "Was it his work, do you think?"

"That's hard to say," Mazzaro replied with a shrug. "But my guess would be yes, it was. Mayer started out as a Techspec--and a good one, according to your father. The parts were filched from domes and lockers all over the Center. As you can imagine, there's no shortage of mag-lev equipment around here."

"And the message I received?"

"That's…harder to explain," Mazzaro said. "We can only assume Mayer sent it--but how he got it directly to you, considering where you were at the time--that we haven't been able to figure out. He must have had help--but who, and how, is unknown."

Which might fit with what Dr. Zriss had told me. "What about Lummis?"

A flicker of something crossed Mazzaro's face; then his expression became studiously neutral. He shook his head. "Still missing," he said. "Nothing new there." He rose, and patted my knee. "I'd better get back to work now," he went on. "I'll be right outside, in case you need anything."

"All right," I said with a smile. "Thanks for the info."

"No problem." He turned to go, but at the door he paused and glanced back. "Don't worry too much about Hammond, Tom," he said quietly. "He was on what they used to call a 'fishing expedition.' Believe me, I know." And with that he departed.

Alone again, I reached for the terminal; but Dad still wasn't answering. With a snarl I pushed the screen away--then changed my mind and pulled it close again. Something that Mazzaro had said about the shuttle crash troubled me; specifically, something about its cause: the aft power couplings. Eerily reminiscent of Dad's argument with Lummis, several years ago, over those little Darwin-class courier vessels…It took me some minutes to find what I wanted in the Fabrication Center computer. Fortunately my clearance was up to the task, and I didn't have to risk using Mom's codes again. What I found didn't surprise me--but I had no real idea what to make of it. Over the last ten years, Edwin Lummis' Noyo Engineering had worked on eight CF contracts--and every one of them had involved power-delivery systems. It seemed to be Lummis' specialty, as life-support was Dad's.

I leaned back and closed my eyes. So, I thought, we've got a guy who's an expert on power couplings, and he mysteriously vanishes, missing a shuttle that then crashes--because of sabotaged power couplings.

I shook my head. I didn't like coincidences, any more than Hammond did--and this one was a whopper.


The next morning I felt simultaneously better and worse.

On the one hand, I seemed to be a bit stronger. After a breakfast of steak (raw) and eggs (scrambled), I was able to stand for a time under the sonic shower. And a good thing: seldom had my fur felt so matted and tangled. When I laid down again my heart was not laboring, nor was I on the verge of fainting. That at least was an improvement.

…But on the other hand, my various strains and bruises, not to mention my ribs, actually felt more painful. That was especially true of my wrists and ankles, and my shoulders and hips. Hardly surprising, I suppose: I'd stressed them far beyond their published design specs, and the healing would take time. What I needed--contrary to the common wisdom of my species--was a good long soak in a hot Jacuzzi. But bandaged as I was, I'd have to settle for a pain-killing med-patch.

After my shower, I tried calling Dad again--but he still wasn't answering. I wasn't sure whether to be mad or worried; this was getting truly bizarre. If I'd had any clothes…

It was then, just as I'd pushed aside the terminal, that the door opened. I looked up hopefully--but it wasn't my father. In fact it was Lieutenant Stewart, a loose bundle in the crook of his arm and a troubled look on his face. He smiled at me, briefly, but couldn't--or wouldn't--meet my gaze. "Good morning," he said. "How do you feel, Tom?"

"I've been better." I nodded at his burden. "What's that?"

"Clothes for you," he said, handing over the package. "You're wanted at a meeting up in Admiral Teeheek's office, ASAP."

I doubted whether I was up to that--but refusal didn't seem to be an option. I frowned. "What kind of meeting?" I asked warily.

Stewart shook his head, his expression unreadable. "I don't know," he said. "All I know is that I'm to deliver you by any means necessary, up to and including a float-chair."

"I can walk," I assured him--though I wondered, even as I spoke, whether that was really true.

I spread out the bundle--and received an unpleasant surprise. What he'd brought me was not some of my own clothes, but rather a semi-disposable coverall, green in color, such as might be worn by someone doing a dirty job. Or by…but I didn't care to pursue that thought. It had been hurriedly altered, by hand it seemed, with the addition of a tail-hole. Probably the smallest size available, still it hung loose, and I had to turn up the cuffs of both sleeves and legs a good fifteen centimeters. And needless to say, I hadn't been provided with a collar--a lack I'd endure, somewhat better than my mother or my sister would have.

Stewart had politely turned his back as I dressed, and now he glanced over his shoulder and nodded. "Let's go," he said--and then, to my surprise, he wrapped his large right hand firmly around my upper left arm. I looked at him quizzically, and he sighed. "My orders," he said softly, "are to treat you as a prisoner."

I felt a brief stab of claw-expressing anger, which faded quickly. "All right," I said. I might have given him trouble; but what would have it gained me? He took no pleasure from this, that was clear--but he was a CF officer, and would follow orders. If I resisted, the next step would be handcuffs, or worse. Meekly then, I allowed myself to be led out of the room. I moved slowly--and not only because of my sore joints: my bandage-wrapped feet felt clumsy, my balance precarious. That seemed not to trouble Stewart; he didn't try to rush me.

Fortunately we had only a short distance to go, down a deserted corridor, through the busy Med Center lobby, and into an elevator; and there I could rest, leaning against the grab-bar. We had the car to ourselves, and once again Stewart keyed it into an express. He stood staring straight forward, his face expressionless but his jaw working, and his right hand rested on the butt of his stinger. I remained silent as well. There were many things I might have asked him, but he wouldn't have answered; and anyway, I was too absorbed in the chaotic jumble of my own thoughts.

It was a little farther from the elevator to Admiral Teeheek's office, but once again Stewart didn't hurry me. Unlike the Med Center lobby, this corridor was all but deserted; there were few to witness my shame.

Oddly enough, the office was empty when we entered, the admiral's chair unoccupied. Stewart lowered me carefully into one of the others on the near side of the desk. "Wait here, please," he said, and then departed. I don't doubt that he locked the door behind him.

For some time I sat alone, gazing out into the perpetual night, the stillness broken only by my waving tail. Exactly what was going on I didn't know, but the feeling of unease that had sprouted within me the moment Stewart entered my room was now full-grown and setting fruit. This was beginning to look less like a meeting than a trial. What did they used to call it? The "Star Chamber"?

I'd waited for perhaps ten minutes--though it seemed more like an hour--when the door opened again, making me jump. I turned, then rose quickly to my feet. Lieutenant Stewart had returned--bringing with him my father.

Dad's eyebrows lifted sharply as he saw me, and he rushed to embrace me. And a good thing, too: I'd risen a little too rapidly, and my legs were threatening to give way. Dad was dressed normally, in slacks and a turtleneck, and Stewart had not been leading him by the arm; evidently he was not a prisoner. He hugged me, then held me at arm's length, gazing quizzically at my unfamiliar outfit. "What in the world--?" he began.

I shook my head. "Wish I knew." I paused, then went on quietly, "Dad, where have you been? I've been trying to contact you since yesterday afternoon…"

He frowned and shook his head, his eyes shifting quickly to Stewart. "Not now," he said. "Later."

And later would have to be much later, because at that moment we were interrupted by the flat buzz of a translated Centaurii voice. "If you would please be seated--?"

We turned. Admiral Teeheek had entered the office, via the door behind the desk, and with her came Hammond. She sat, and Hammond, as before, took up a station behind her, his hands resting on the back of her chair. I gazed hard at the Security chief, using the stare I'd inherited from Mom (and she from countless generations of hunting carnivores); but he refused to wilt. In fact his face wore a triumphant half-smirk--and seeing that, I began to understand what was going on.

"Thank you for coming," Teeheek said. She glanced at Stewart. "That will be all, Lieutenant. Dismissed."

Stewart nodded and departed. Dad wasted no time: even as the door closed behind my dedicated bodyguard, he launched in. "Admiral," he said, "I must protest my son's being brought here. Your own doctors prescribed bed-rest--"

"Your objections are noted and logged," Teeheek interrupted coldly. "I assure you, Tom will come to no harm. We will be finished here shortly, and then he may return to his bed."

Dad subsided, unrepentant, and the admiral went on, "Mr. Abrams, I assume you know that when a civilian enters a CF installation, he becomes subject to military law and regulations for the duration of his stay?"

"Of course," Dad said. He knew, or thought he knew, where this was going; I'm sure of that. But if so, he was in for a surprise. And so was I.

The admiral's beady eyes flicked over to me. "In his adventure two nights ago," she went on, "your son violated a number of regulations." She held up her hand, cutting short Dad's protest. "I know: Tom was the victim; he came close to dying, again, at the hands of Mr. Mayer. That is certainly true--but had he not intruded where he was not wanted, that would not have happened." She nodded at Hammond, who was now openly grinning. "The commander has insisted that charges be filed, both for the incident in the domes, and for one last night, in which Tom evidently threatened him."

Dad glanced at me, but I couldn't hold his gaze. So that's it, I thought bitterly. Revenge. Or was there more to it--?

"This is ludicrous, Admiral," Dad said. "Last night my son was in a hospital bed--where he should still be. How much of a threat could he have been? If he expressed anger, I suspect it was because Mr. Hammond was badgering him."

Hammond's smile closed down, and I looked up at Dad in surprise. A lucky guess? I wondered. Or an informed one? No way to be certain, but I thought I detected the handiwork of one Lieutenant Tony Mazzaro…

"That, of course, would be a matter for the court to decide," Teeheek said. "Assuming that I allow charges to be filed. Thus far, Mr. Hammond has not proven his case to my satisfaction." She leaned forward. "Let me explain the situation more clearly. Please be assured, I hold no animosity toward you or your son. I have tried very hard to tell myself that your involvement in our current difficulties is coincidental--but I can do so no longer. Mr. Hammond is convinced that you at least, Mr. Abrams, are directly and criminally involved. I do not believe that--yet. But I do believe you possess relevant knowledge, which you have chosen not to share.

"Silence is no longer an option, Mr. Abrams. At present I have nothing with which to charge you, and thus no hold over you. But I do have charges I can file against your son--if I so choose. It has been indicated that your wife's CF contacts could force those charges to be dropped. Perhaps so; perhaps not. I have connections of my own. I do not wish to send your son to a penal colony for twenty years--but if you make it necessary, I will."

For the better part of a minute there was silence. Admiral Teeheek sat staring at Dad, spearing him with her keen eyes. Behind her, the triumphant expression had returned to Commander Hammond's face; but he avoided my gaze. Dad sat grasping the arms of his chair, his knuckles and his face both dead-white, and he glanced from the admiral to me and back again in undisguised anguish.

And me--? Mr. Tom the Pawn Abrams sat silent, tail lashing and claws expressed, heart pounding and breath coming in rib-twanging gasps. More than halfway a convict already, I couldn't decide whether to be furious or scared to death. A little of both, I guess.

Finally Dad sighed, and reached across to cover my hand with his. "You leave me no choice, Admiral," he said quietly. "I doubt I know as much as you think I do--but whatever I have is yours."

Teeheek nodded, but Hammond, the bastard, actually looked disappointed. "Very good," the admiral said. "Perhaps now we may begin to accomplish something." She leaned back. "I need not tell you," she went on, "that we possess far more questions than answers. That must be reversed--before anyone else is injured or killed."

"An excellent suggestion, Admiral. How do you propose to begin?"

The four of us turned quickly. A stranger stood with his arms crossed over his chest. Human, he appeared to be in his late thirties; his hair was dark, almost black, and his eyes a slightly lighter shade of brown. He wore a black uniform with the stars of a full commander, and in his hand he clutched a palm-reader.

Admiral Teeheek rose. Any lesser mortal would have withered under her gaze; but this man did not. Whether that implied supreme self-confidence or something else, I couldn't say. "Who are you?" the admiral demanded harshly. "What is the meaning of this?"

The stranger stepped forward, letting the door close behind him. "Please forgive the intrusion, Admiral," he said. His voice was quiet but forceful; his expression impassive, but his eyes piercing. "I am Commander William Reid," he continued. "I represent Admiral Brewer, chief of CF Security on Centaurus."

Hammond went pale, and seemed to stagger; he had to grip the admiral's chair to remain upright. Beside me Dad made a soft grunt of surprise. My tail twitched uncertainly, but for the moment my claws were under control.

Reid went on, "My job is to determine what has been happening in this facility." He looked around, a glance that took in all of us alike. "Your job is to convince me that I shouldn't have you all arrested."