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.




Admiral Teeheek was still on her feet, anger flashing from her eyes. "How dare you speak to me like that, Commander?" she flared.

Silently, Reid crossed the room and handed her his palm-reader. She glanced at its screen--and her flaring, white-edged crest collapsed. She sat down abruptly.

"Allow me to explain," Reid said, retrieving the reader from her nerveless fingers. "I am here with the authority of Admiral Brewer, and with the full support of the Admiralty. In speaking to me, you are in effect speaking directly to them."

That at least accounted for Teeheek's reaction--and Reid's confident attitude as well. There came a moment of stunned silence, during which Reid, uninvited, perched himself on the windowsill. The admiral's face had set into a kind of stony immobility, and behind her, Hammond looked on the verge of being violently ill. I think he saw in this intruder's hands the thin thread from which his career hung.

"A moment ago, Admiral," Reid said, "you remarked that we have far more questions than answers. In that, you were entirely correct. How do you plan to remedy the situation?"

Hammond shook himself, and stuck out his jaw pugnaciously. "Commander Reid," he said, "if the Admiralty is now involved, is it appropriate for us to have civilians present?"

Reid glanced at Dad and me. I tried to read his expression--and failed. His face, his eyes were closed books; he was, as Dickens said of Scrooge, "solitary as an oyster." And whether he was friend or foe, there was simply no way to know. "It is," he said. "These particular civilians at least. Whatever has been happening here, obviously they are involved. Their connection may be entirely accidental--but that remains to be determined."

He keyed his reader, called up a page, and frowned at it. "Joel Aaron Abrams," he recited. "Age fifty-five. At one time a Combined Forces lieutenant commander, an engineer of rare ability. Allowed to resign honorably after court-martial on charges of conduct unbecoming in the Raven affair. Reasons for resignation somewhat unclear. Since then a private consulting engineer. Married twenty years ago to then-Commander Ehm'ayla, now Commodore. The first--and thus far only--human/Sah'aaran marriage in history. Earns a comfortable living, largely through CF contracts. No criminal record; arrested last year on Sah'aar, on suspicion of murder; charges dropped, as the alleged victims were still alive."

He glanced at me, and brought up another page. "Thomas Sah'surraa Abrams. Age seventeen. Mother, Commodore Ehm'ayla; biological father widely believed to be Dr. Sah'larrah of Sah'aar. Fraternal twin sister, Ehm'rael Sarah Abrams. Both formally adopted by Joel Abrams immediately after birth. Honor student at Pacific Grove High School, Terra; has aspirations to study engineering. Involved--along with the rest of his family--in the Undercity affair on Sah'aar, one year ago. No criminal record, no known political affiliations."

I felt myself beginning to bristle, but Dad laid a warning hand on my shoulder. "I'm well aware of the efficiency of Security data-gathering," he said. "But are the details of my family's private lives truly relevant?"

"Perhaps not," Reid said. He slipped the reader into his pocket. "That also remains to be determined."

"Enough of this," Teeheek said. She gazed sharply at Hammond. "Mr. Abrams has information which may be of use to us; he stays."

"I quite agree, Admiral," Reid said.

"And you," the admiral went on, turning to glare at him, "would you please tell me how you got here? I thought I had this facility locked down."

"Which was indeed a wise precaution," Reid said. "My shuttle arrived at the civilian spaceport in Discovery Valley a little less than an hour ago; from there I commandeered a tube-car--for which I had Admiral Brewer's personal authorization."

"And why wasn't I informed?" Teeheek demanded coldly.

Reid returned her gaze steadily. "Do I really need to answer that, Admiral?"

Anyone else in his position would have been enjoying himself immensely; but with him, it was impossible to tell. There was something about his cold, clinical detachment that I found decidedly creepy--and something about his name that tickled my memory. I was certain I'd heard of him before; but I couldn't quite remember where.

Hammond frowned sulkily. "I don't know why Admiral Brewer thought he needed to send you," he said. "We were getting along fine all by ourselves."

"Let's examine the logic behind that statement," Reid said. As Hammond had the night before, Reid ticked off the points on his fingers, one by one. "A CF officer attacks a civilian for no readily-apparent reason, then escapes from custody to concoct another, even more imaginative death-trap. Chaos and terrorist threats shut down the most important and visible Combined Forces project in a decade. A shuttle crashes due to sabotage, killing nine people and injuring scores more. A civilian engineer vanishes without a trace. And the offices of this very facility's Security department are apparently as accessible as a public shopping mall. By what criteria, Commander Hammond, does that fit anyone's definition of 'getting along fine'?"

Hammond had no answer for that--just a deepening of the scowl that seemed to have taken up permanent residence on his face. Reid glanced around. "I don't believe you understand the gravity of this situation," he said. "Perhaps locking down this facility has isolated you too much. All of the CF is in an uproar; and because of the news media, so too is the entire Alliance. We may only speculate what the Chrysaoans must be thinking. The Admirals want very strongly for this situation to be cleared up now, before the public-relations nightmare worsens. It is equally vital that the Isaac Haliday project be restarted as soon as possible."

"That may not be as easy as they hope, Commander," Dad put in mildly.

Reid turned. "And why is that, Mr. Abrams?"

Dad shrugged. "I've been speaking to some of the engineers who were aboard that shuttle. I know most of them, by reputation if not personally. They're pretty well unanimous--as unprecedented as that is. They have no intention of working for the Combined Forces again--and I have to say my own desire has been pretty thoroughly dampened. As soon as they return home, they intend to organize a boycott. And unless the Admirals know a way to get the Haliday designed and built without any independent contractors at all, I don't think they'll be attending a launching anytime soon."

For a moment Reid actually seemed nonplused. But finally, and with an effort, he shook it off. "That is a problem, certainly," he said. "I'd be a fool to deny it. But it's outside my purview. If we can solve this Center's difficulties, perhaps your colleagues will once again feel safe here."

Dad shrugged. "Perhaps," he said simply. I knew that tone of voice, though: my sister and I had heard it many times. It meant, "Don't hold your breath."

"But returning to the subject at hand," Reid went on. "I believe it was said that you have information which might be useful, Mr. Abrams?"

Once again all eyes--including my own--turned to my father, and he sighed. "As I was telling the admiral, I might not know as much as she thinks I do." He paused. "What I have, I've already promised to tell. But," he added quickly, "now that you're here, Commander Reid, representing Admiral Brewer, I want to say for the record that my promise was obtained by extremely questionable means. I don't believe extortion is an appropriate tactic for CF officers, no matter the situation. And if you won't tell Admiral Brewer that, Mr. Reid, I will--live and in person."

Reid's eyes narrowed. Teeheek returned his gaze coldly, brazenly, but Hammond turned away. "We'll discuss that later, Mr. Abrams," Reid said. "And in private. I do take it very seriously, I assure you." He cleared his throat. "But in the interest of expediency, will you please tell us what you know?"

"All right," Dad said. He paused, gathering his thoughts, then took a deep breath. "First of all, Commander Hammond is correct: my family and I have become involved in this matter. But I must absolutely deny that our involvement is anything other than accidental. Neither my son nor I had anything to do with the threats against the Haliday project, nor the shuttle crash."

"As yet, I have no compelling reason to doubt you," Reid said. "Please go on."

"Second," Dad said. He smiled. "In the interest of expediency, let me say right now that Tom and I are aware of the connection of the Planetary Preservation Society to this Center's problems."

Hammond looked startled, but Teeheek simply nodded. "Not entirely unexpected," she said. "And for the moment, we will not question how you came by that information."

"At first," Dad said, "I believed Mayer was simply seeking revenge when he attacked my son. I don't know if you've been briefed on that, Mr. Reid--?"

The Security man nodded. "I have."

"--But I'm no longer certain of that," Dad went on. "At very least, there are a number of unanswered questions. Tom and I have discovered a definite connection between Mayer and the PPS; coincidental, perhaps, but I find that difficult to believe…"

"You are referring to certain magazine articles," Teeheek said. "We are aware of that also."

"As am I," Reid said.

"Good," Dad said. "That makes it easier. Those articles might have inflamed Mayer's hatred toward Ehm'ayla--if indeed any existed--but the connection to the PPS troubles me greatly."

"And his claim that he received orders from Captain Antilles?" Reid asked.

Dad waved his hand. "I've never believed that," he said. "It was just his way of…"

"Maybe not," I interrupted. With all the excitement, it had completely slipped my mind: I held a vital piece of the puzzle, one I hadn't yet been able to pass along to my father. I didn't really want to become the focus of attention again, but that couldn't be helped.

"Pardon me?" Dad asked, startled.

"According to Dr. Zriss," I said, "he really believes he saw Antilles. She studied his brain-waves…"

Dad's jaw dropped, and Reid frowned. "Very interesting," he said. "Such evidence is inadmissible in court," he explained, "largely because so-called 'lie-detector' tests do not work on some species. Quadrians, for example. In fact such scans are not supposed to be taken without the consent of the accused." He glanced at Hammond and Teeheek. "Which I presume was not obtained in this case. That may be why the results of the test did not appear in Mayer's personnel file. Interesting indeed."

"--And that wasn't all," I said. "Dr. Zriss implied that someone may have been deliberately misleading Mayer--using something like virtual reality to convince him he really was seeing Antilles."

"To what end?" Reid asked--but he was speaking to Hammond, not me.

The hapless Security chief started to reply, albeit reluctantly, but Dad beat him to it. "To use him as a tool," he said grimly. "Or more accurately, as a murder weapon." He shook his head. "I should have seen it," he went on. "My God, it was staring me right in the face all the time!"

"Dr. Zriss has apparently been saying more than is good for her," Admiral Teeheek said heavily. "But that is indeed what we suspect."

"I fear I'm still a bit unclear on the ultimate purpose," Reid said.

"The most obvious answer," Dad said, "would be as a distraction." He paused. "Or maybe I really mean a catalyst." He glanced at me. "I'm thinking about what Mayer said when Hammond interrogated him, the morning after the incident in the museum. He said he'd seen Antilles in his quarters; that Antilles was 'always there these days.' Consider this: imagine for the moment you're the PPS. You're looking for a way to disrupt an important project by breaking up a key design meeting. Security will be tight, so whatever you do will have to be done obliquely, outside the meeting itself. You study the Fabrication Center's staff roster, looking for someone to bribe or blackmail--but you find something even better, someone with a red-flagged Psych file. You study his background, and find out how and where his troubles started. Then you go to work: in essence you re-create Captain Antilles, playing on every young officer's instinctive fear of his CO. Maybe you use drugs or other methods to enhance Mayer's suggestibility.

"Then you have to decide what to do with him," Dad went on. "And almost immediately you're handed what must seem a God-given opportunity, when someone from Mayer's past arrives in the Center. Tom may have been the easier target, because he went to the museum while I was stuck in meetings. Or perhaps the choice was entirely deliberate and calculated. Probably the plan was for Mayer to kill Tom, and then vanish. If he'd succeeded, that would certainly have shut down the Center--and if he was caught…well, he was red-flagged. It would be easy enough for the authorities to convince themselves he'd simply flipped."

Reid nodded slowly. "Plausible," he said. He turned. "Your thoughts, Admiral?"

"Mr. Abrams' theory parallels ours," Teeheek said. "But we could not, of course, entirely discard the others--for example, that Mr. Abrams himself may have been involved."

Reid smiled thinly. "Certainly not." He turned back to Dad. "And how do you account for the second attack--and the radical change in Mayer's personality?"

Dad shrugged. "He is unstable," he said. "He was even before they--whoever 'they' are--went to work on him. I suspect he might have gone beyond their control, become what used to be called a 'loose cannon.'"

"As alluring at this hypothesis is," Reid said, "it fails to account for many things. Most importantly, the identities of our putative brain-washers, and how they managed to operate within a secure installation. Mr. Abrams," he went on briskly, "what is exactly is your relationship with Edwin Lummis?"

Dad looked startled--more so than could be accounted for by the sudden change of subject. He began to reply, but was interrupted by the intercom. "Kincaid to Commander Hammond."

Hammond glanced at Teeheek, and she nodded. He reached around her to press the button. "Hammond here. I told you I wasn't to be disturbed…"

"Yes, sir." Hammond's second-in-command sounded curiously strained. "But there has been an…incident."

"Go ahead."

"Commander, Mr. Mayer has been found--"

Everyone in the office leaped to his or her feet--which in my case was a mistake, as a wave of dizziness swept through me, and Dad had to clutch my arm to keep me from falling.

"He has!" Hammond interrupted, with a triumphant glance at Reid. "Very good, Mr. Kincaid. I'll be down to question him--"

"You don't understand, sir," Kincaid said. "He's been found--but he's dead. He appears to have been murdered."


It was a…shrine.

By the time the six of us reached the scene of the crime, deep in the service tunnels between the domes, I was breathing hard, my legs felt shaky, and I had to lean on my father for support. It shouldn't have been that way: a walk of less than a kilometer should have been inconsequential. But I seemed to have misplaced my stamina somewhere; probably I'd left it in the dome where Mayer hung me like a side of maxigrazer. I could only hope that it--along with my other missing property--would eventually turn up.

All of us who had been in the admiral's office made the journey. Hammond, of course, argued that Dad and I should be excluded; but fortunately--or unfortunately, depending on your point of view--both Teeheek and Reid disagreed. We were met in the lobby by Kincaid; it was the first time I had actually set eyes on him, and his thin face, wavy red hair and short, almost scrawny frame exactly matched his nasal and supercilious voice.

Up to a point, the path we took matched the one I'd followed two days ago; but before we reached the dome where I'd nearly met my end, Kincaid veered off into another, narrower corridor. At least this time I could see where I was going: the lights had been turned up, darkness being of no further use.

Kincaid finally came to a halt at a spot which would have been utterly nondescript, except for two things: the small knot of Security officers and techs gathered there, working with scanpaks and other instruments; and the outline of a grotesquely-sprawled body, marked with strips of white tape on the deck near the left-hand wall. The corpse itself, it appeared, had already been removed. That fact seemed to dismay both Hammond and Reid--but it suited me just fine. A patch of floor, corresponding to the figure's head, was darkly discolored; burned, perhaps? As we approached, the officers and techs glanced up, but at a gesture from Hammond they went back to work.

"This is where Mayer was found," Kincaid told us. He pointed. "And this--apparently--was where he was living."

On the right-hand wall, a small, heavily-armored hatch hung half open, the space behind dimly-lit. Five of us crowded close together for a look, with Reid and Hammond in front; only Kincaid hung back. The door was no more than a meter square, and opened outward; it was a good twenty centimeters thick, and hung from a pair of almost ludicrously oversized hinges. The latch was massive too, and operated by a spoked wheel. And beyond that…

I spoke quietly into Dad's ear: "What is it?"

"A decompression shelter," he whispered. "They have them every ten meters or so along these tunnels. The theory is, if there's a sudden loss of air, you might be able to remain conscious long enough to reach one. They have saved lives."

Painfully I knelt, to peer between the legs of Hammond and Reid. The interior of the shelter looked coffin-sized at first glance, but was actually somewhat larger, about a meter and a half tall and about two meters wide and deep. The walls were lined with narrow shelves. No doubt their usual contents included air-replenishers, spacesuits, containers of water and food, tools, comm equipment and medical supplies--but the majority of that was gone. There was no room for it anyway, because Mayer, so it seemed, had turned that tiny space into an apartment. The ratty slab of packing foam on the floor was obviously his bed; at its foot lay a thin silver emergency blanket, neatly folded. In the far corner, a box overflowed with trash: ration-bar wrappers and empty water-bottles mainly. The shelves to the right were crammed with more food and water; no doubt he'd burgled the other shelters in the vicinity.

To the left, he'd converted the shelves into a makeshift workshop. The lowest was covered with an orderly jumble of hand tools: tiny laser drills, micro-welders, sonic manipulators, and suchlike. Those above held pieces of half-disassembled equipment, and a number of unidentifiable electronic components. All, of course, stolen from the domes. No need to wonder what he'd been building; I knew that quite well already.

But it was the shelves at the rear that caught my eye, and sent me scuttling forward, shoving past commanders and admiral alike, heedless of Dad's hand clutching at my tail. "Goddess!" I breathed.

The items arranged near the head of the bed were familiar--very familiar indeed. Neatly folded there lay a pair of black trousers, far too small for Mayer, and a white pullover shirt. Alongside lay a wrist-chrono, a civilian-model palm-reader, a black collar with multicolored embroidery, and a narrow band of silver and ruby. In short, everything Mayer had stripped from me before he left me to die.

…But it was not even those that grabbed my attention. Rather, it was that around which they were arranged, like votive offerings: a single framed holo. I might have expected an image of Captain Antilles--but it was not. In fact the photo--which must have been almost twenty-five years old--depicted a young and serious-looking Lieutenant Scispec Ehm'ayla.


I was trembling violently as I crawled back out of the shelter, and Dad had to help me to my feet. For a moment I feared I would be sick; but I clamped my jaw shut, swallowed hard, and managed somehow to push the nausea aside. Dad supported me, his arm around my waist; but his attention was elsewhere, his eyes narrowed and his lips pursed pensively. I had a pretty good idea I knew what he was thinking.

Reid turned to Kincaid. "Can you tell us exactly what happened here, Commander?"

Kincaid glanced at Hammond, and the Security chief nodded. "Yes, sir," Kincaid said. He took a deep breath and began to speak, slowly and carefully, as if narrating his log entry. "Approximately one hour ago, one of our patrols discovered what appeared to be a dead body, lying here--" he indicated the tape outline-- "and this hatchway hanging half-open. A brief examination confirmed that the victim was indeed DOA; but the condition of the corpse made identification difficult. There was extensive damage to the face, as well as the chest."

"What kind of damage?" Admiral Teeheek asked.

Kincaid cleared his throat uncomfortably. "It appears he was killed with a laser cutting torch; his heart and left lung were destroyed, as were most of his left-side ribs. His face was also burned away, down to bone--but whether that happened before or after death, we're not yet sure."

My gorge rose again, and with difficulty, I fought it down. Beyond the stain on the floor, I'd had no clue; the highly-efficient life-support system had already scrubbed all trace of charred flesh from the air. Dad, and even Hammond, paled; and the admiral's beak snapped shut with a sharp click. Of all of us, only Reid seemed unaffected. "What did you do, Commander?" he asked.

"The patrol alerted me immediately," Kincaid went on, "as Commander Hammond had left orders that he was not to be disturbed. I alerted the crime-scene investigation team and the coroner, and we proceeded here as quickly as possible. Dr. Lambert was able to determine, through a DNA scan, that the victim was indeed Lieutenant Mayer. I decided then I would have to contact Commander Hammond."

"You acted correctly," Reid assured him. "The body has been taken to the morgue?"

"Yes, sir," Kincaid said. "On my authority."

"That was perhaps unfortunate," Reid said. "But can't be corrected now." He paused, rubbing his chin. "We may wish to examine it later," he continued--and I earnestly hoped he was using the royal "we." He turned. "And this was his hideout--?"

"Evidently so," Kincaid agreed. "His DNA traces are all over it--and only his. Our patrols have been walking past it for days, but he seems to have cobbled together some sort of damping field to block our scanpaks."

Reid glanced at Dad, with a humorless half-smile. "Mr. Mayer seems to have been an even more promising engineer than you believed, Mr. Abrams," he commented.

Dad stirred. "Apparently so," he said--and from the doubtful tone in his voice and his narrowed eyes, I knew yet again that something wasn't adding up. But as usual, I had no idea what.

"Unfortunately the patrol disturbed the scene somewhat," Kincaid was saying. "We haven't been able to find any other recent DNA traces."

"I doubt you will, Commander," Reid said. He indicated the hatch. "He seems to have been surprised, either emerging from or returning to his hideout. Do we have a time of death established?"

"Only tentatively, sir," Kincaid said. "The first indication--based on the cooling of the body--are somewhere between zero-hundred and oh-three-hundred this morning. Dr. Lambert may be able to narrow that down by determining the rate of protein breakdown."

Reid nodded thoughtfully. "The middle of the night, then," he said. "Or close enough." He paused. "Why that choice of weapon, I wonder?"

Hammond snorted. "Obvious," he said derisively. "A stinger would have triggered the weapons alarms. A laser-torch wouldn't."

"True," Reid said, pointedly ignoring Hammond's tone. "But how important would that really have been? Yes, an alarm would have sounded--but the assailant could easily have escaped before anyone had time to respond. No: I think the answer lies elsewhere. The greater degree of damage, perhaps." He glanced at me. "Or someone has a highly-developed appreciation of synchronicity." He nodded at the contorted outline. "What did you call him, Mr. Abrams? A 'loose cannon'? If so, it would appear he has been spiked."


I didn't have to view the body, thank the Goddess--but Dad did.

By the time our group--minus Kincaid--made our way up to the Medical Center, I knew I'd attempted too much in one day. Just past noon--and already I felt as if I'd just completed an extra-innings double-header. In the narrow, deserted corridor outside the morgue, I sat huddled on a bench, my head in my hands, trembling, half-sick, and sore all over. Walking on Asilomar Beach with Tass, I thought wistfully. Watching the sunset at Point Piños. Dinner on Fisherman's Wharf, just the two of us … It seemed a million years ago, and a billion light-years away. And it didn't help that as I sat, a nasty suspicion began to take root and grow in the depths of my mind…

I don't know how long I'd been waiting--half an hour, perhaps--when the door across from me opened and the remainder of our group trooped out: Teeheek, Reid, Hammond, and my father, all of them grim-faced and silent. Dad glanced at me, and his expression changed immediately to one of concern. He crossed over to sit beside me, his hand on my arm. "Admiral," he said over his shoulder, "if we're finished for now, I'd like to take my son back to his room."

Teeheek shook herself, dislodging a feather or two. "By all means," she said. "We may need to speak to you again later, but for now we will let Tom rest."

"Thank you, Admiral," Dad said, his tone dripping irony. He slipped his arm around my waist and lifted me to my feet, and slowly we headed up the corridor.

"I'm sorry, Tom," he said, as soon as we were alone. "I shouldn't have let them put you through that."

I shook my head. "Not your fault," I said. "They needed a trump card, and I was elected. I'm glad you let Reid know what was going on, though." I paused. "How--how was it?" I asked quietly. I didn't need to explain what "it" was.

"Not good," he replied grimly. "It's just as well you didn't come in. I've seen some bad things in my time, son, but seldom anything like that. Kincaid was right: Mayer's face was burned off."

Curiously, those words didn't cause another wave of nausea; maybe I had developed an immunity. "Before or after he was dead?" I asked.

"After," Dad replied. "Or so the coroner believes."

Why? I wondered. The shot through the heart was enough to do him in--obviously. Why waste time--and risk capture--by mutilating the corpse? To prevent it from being identified? Ridiculous, with DNA-scanning technology available--as anyone with half a brain would know. So--what, then? Terrorism? Had someone intended to send us a message? Maybe--but I couldn't quite make myself believe it.

We had reached the lobby by then, and, threading our way through the rush of physicians, nurses, orderlies and patients, we crossed to the corridor that led to my room. "What did Reid mean about the murder weapon?" I asked. "He said something about 'synchronicity'…"

Dad sighed. "I imagine," he said slowly, "he was referring to the fact that Mayer was killed with the same device that he used in his first attempt on you. If nothing else, that proves there was a connection."

If nothing else, I echoed silently. But Reid seemed to have had something entirely different in mind--perhaps the same terrible, unendurable thought that had occurred to me as I waited outside the morgue. It was something I couldn't believe--or, more accurately, didn't want to believe, and so I'd thrust it from my mind. But the Security man would have no such scruples.

We entered my room then. In my absence, someone had changed the bed-covers, and a fresh disposable gown had been left for me. Dad helped me out of that stupid jumpsuit and into bed, and for several minutes I lay flat on my back, breathing hard. The monitor panel, ever vigilant, came to life, beeping wildly in time with my laboring heart.

Frowning in concern, Dad sat down next to me, covering my hand with his own. "Are you all right?" he asked.

"I will be," I assured him. "It was a little too soon for me to stay vertical that long."

He nodded. "I think you're right. Damn Hammond anyway! And Teeheek too." He paused. "Would you like some lunch, Tom? It is past noon…"

I thought about it…but my stomach was still a hard knot. "Maybe later."

"All right. Would you like me to stay, Tom? Or would you like to get some sleep?"

"I might need to sleep," I said. "But I'd like you to stay anyway."

He peered into my eyes, and smiled. "I understand." He scooted the stool back a bit, so he could lean against the wall, and I fiddled with the bed's controls, raising my head to look him in the eye.

"Dad," I said, "what did you make of that…display…in Mayer's hideout?"

He shook his head. "This situation has had any number of bizarre aspects," he said, "but that one takes the prize. I would never have expected anything like that." He frowned. "And yet, the more I think about it, the more sense it makes."

"Even the picture?"

"That was the strangest thing yet," he admitted. "But yes, even that."

"My clothes, my property--they were like…offerings. Like the candles they light in Goddess shrines. But I'd have expected him to be making sacrifices to Antilles--not Mom."

"Me too," Dad said. "But seeing that made me wonder if we haven't been looking at this whole thing backwards."

"How so?"

"Well, assume for a moment that Dr. Zriss was right; that Mayer has somehow been brainwashed." He paused, and shook his head sadly. "I'm glad your mother isn't here, Tom. It's been bad enough for me to dredge up all those memories--for her it would have been pure torture. She's a functional, well-adjusted person--of course she is--but she never fully recovered from what happened aboard That Ship. I'm just grateful she was able to…" He trailed off, and shook his head again. "But there's no need to go into that. Where was I? Oh yes--you know what happened aboard Raven, Tom. Antilles tried hard to make the crew hate her. He was scared to death of what she represented: the unassailable fact that his theories of Terran superiority were nonsense. He tried to make the crew believe that she was incompetent, unpredictable--even dangerous. He sent one of my own trainees to torment her. I wish now I'd strangled the bastard…"

"Osgood," I said flatly.

"That's him," Dad confirmed. "But Antilles didn't recognize that Osgood had made himself almost universally disliked. He had a small group of sycophants, but the rest of the crew regarded him as an arrogant little jerk, just begging to be brought down a peg or two. And for them, that last incident--the claw-cutting--was the last straw. Too many people saw what happened: that your mother was goaded past her breaking point. Most of them probably wished she had clawed Osgood."

"Uh, Dad," I said, "excuse me, but is there a point coming anytime soon?"

He grinned. "Right away," he promised. "That incident finally earned her the sympathy of the majority of the crew--but as I told you once before, there were a few who were on her side from the beginning, who never bought into Antilles' lies."

I nodded. "Brian Matthews," I said, "and Mayer himself."

"That's right," Dad said. He smiled. "And myself, of course." He paused. "All this time I've been trying to justify a revenge motive--but I just couldn't understand how Mayer could have come to hate your mother so thoroughly. Now I'm wondering if the opposite might be true--if he might even have convinced himself he loved her?"

I drew back, as if Dad, not Mayer, was the lunatic. "And showed it by trying to murder her son?" I asked.

"He might not have seen it that way," Dad said. "I'm not flying blind here, Tom. My father once defended a man in a similar case--oh, it must be almost fifty years ago now. The man was obsessed with a certain woman, though she wanted nothing to do with him. In fact she was happily married, and had children. The man stalked her, wouldn't leave her alone, and finally broke into and trashed her home. He wanted to destroy the life she'd made, because he believed it was a mistake. He saw himself as her savior; he believed it was his duty to tear her down and rebuild her as he believed she should be."

"And you're saying that's what Mayer was trying to do?"

"I'm saying it's plausible," he corrected. "If in fact he'd been brainwashed, clearly whoever did it thought they'd conditioned him to obey Antilles. But what if they also triggered something that had been brewing inside him for twenty-five years? Of course we might never know. And," he finished with a grin, "I'm as tired of unsupported theorizing as you are."

"Dad," I said, "those things in his hideout--my clothes and other stuff. What's going to happen to them?"

He smiled. "If I know Commander Hammond, they'll end up in his extremely porous evidence room. But I'll see what I can do."

I swallowed. "The other stuff I can live without--I have enough clothes and collars. But the bonding-band…"

"I know," he said softly. "And I'll make sure Admiral Teeheek knows too."

For a few minutes then we sat silent, each absorbed in our own thoughts. Dad looked troubled and grim, the lines on his forehead deeper than usual. Several times he shook his head, as if formulating theories and rejecting them, one after another.

Finally I took a deep breath, ignoring a twinge from my ribs. Unbidden and unwelcome, that horrible suspicion had returned. Dad's latest hypothesis had driven it from my mind, temporarily--but now it was back, the Goddess help me, and clamoring louder than ever for my attention. One way or another, I would have to put it to rest. "Dad," I said, "if I asked you a very serious question, would you give me a truthful answer?"

He smiled faintly. "Haven't I always?"

"As far as I know, yes."

He shrugged. "And there's no reason for that to change now. Go ahead."

I hesitated, then swallowed and said, "Dad--did you kill Mayer?"

For a moment I feared he might topple over backwards. Finally he got his throat working and demanded harshly, "What in God's name put that idea in your head?"

I drew back from his sudden anger. "I'm sorry," I said quickly. "It was a stupid question. It's just…well, Dad, yesterday you did say Mayer would be a dead man if you ever caught up with him. And for more than fifteen hours--up until this morning--I couldn't find you."

For several seconds he glared…then reached out to embrace me. "There's no need for you to be sorry, Tom," he said. He sat back. "I understand. And you're not far wrong, actually. When I left here yesterday I was angry enough to kill Mayer, had I known where to find him. But I wouldn't have used a laser torch." He flexed his hands. "I'd have used these. And as for where I was--I do owe you an explanation. I would have told you sooner, if there'd been time. But," he said seriously, clasping my shoulder and peering deep into my eyes, "I give you my word: I did not kill him. Nor do I know who did--yet."

I couldn't hold his gaze. "Part of me is glad he's gone," I admitted.

"Me too," Dad said. "And not only because of what he did to you. He's finally at peace, after all these years. I said it before, Tom, and I still believe it: this is all Antilles' fault. Dead fifteen years, and he's still causing us grief."

"So," I said, "where were you yesterday?"

Dad opened his mouth to reply, but he was interrupted, by a half-familiar, level-toned voice. "An excellent question."

We turned, and Dad rose to his feet. There in the doorway, his arms crossed over his chest, stood Commander Reid. As before, his face was expressionless, his eyes narrowed, and he met Dad's glare steadily. "I must admit," he went on, "I would like to know the answer to that myself. Where were you yesterday afternoon and evening, Mr. Abrams? Others besides your son were looking for you."

"You have an annoying habit of popping up unannounced," Dad said bitterly.

"An occupational hazard," Reid said. He took a step forward, letting the door close behind him. "A Special Investigator soon learns the knack of being where the information is."

"A useful skill," Dad said. His eyes narrowed. "William Reid," he mused. "I swear I've heard that name before. Something to do with an artifact from Epsilon Borotis II, I believe? One that didn't quite make it to Terra for study?"

Reid seemed to freeze, just for an instant; then he relaxed, and a small, clipped chuckle escaped his lips. "You are indeed well-connected, Mr. Abrams."

Dad shrugged. "I sleep with the CF's leading archaeologist."

"…And now we understand each other," Reid said. He paused, then went on, "Our conversation in Admiral Teeheek's office was somewhat truncated; a great many things went unsaid. Some were made academic by Mr. Mayer's death--but others were not."

Dad said nothing, and Reid continued, "Commander Hammond is a fool. We both know that. He's spent precious time chasing phantoms--including you, to be frank. He remains more than half convinced that you sabotaged that shuttle. He has no evidence, however, apart from one undeniable fact: that you were unaccounted for prior to its crash. And again, it seems, for a number of hours yesterday." He glanced at me. "I am not a barbarian, Mr. Abrams. I do not use the threat of prosecution as a blunt instrument. I believe your interests parallel mine: to find the truth; to see justice done; and to prevent further loss of life. I do not ask you to trust me; not so soon. But can we not at least help each other?"

Dad stood silent for a moment, staring into Reid's inscrutable brown eyes. What was going through my father's mind I didn't know, couldn't even begin to guess. Finally he sighed, and reached across the bed for the data terminal. I didn't catch the quick series of numbers he punched in, nor could I see the screen when it lit a few seconds later. He spoke just two words--"It's time"--then shut off the terminal and pushed it away. He sat down on the foot of my bed, offering the stool to Reid with a sweep of his hand.

"Now what?" the Security man asked in perplexity, as he seated himself.

"Now we wait," Dad told him. He glanced at his chrono. "Shouldn't be more than five minutes or so."

And in fact he was right--though the uncomfortable silence seemed to stretch on far longer. Finally the door opened, and a man entered. Short and pale, he had close-cropped dark hair and a jet-black, pencil-thin mustache. He wore a dark-grey civilian suit that was out of style and ill-fitting. I recognized him instantly, and I heard myself gasp in amazement.

The man turned to Reid, bowed, and smiled. "Good afternoon, Commander," he said. "Allow me to introduce myself: Special Agent Lummis of the Alliance Intelligence Bureau."