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.




Commander Reid looked terrible.

"Admiral," he said, gazing around the table through bloodshot and puffy eyes, "gentlemen--I must ask you to excuse my appearance this morning. I lacked the time to make myself presentable."

That was an understatement. Our friend the Special Investigator had obviously been awake all night. His uniform was wrinkled, and its mag-seal was open almost to the waist, showing a bold triangle of undershirt. His hair was uncombed, and a day's worth of stubble darkened his cheeks and chin. Entering the meeting room--the last to arrive--he headed immediately for the coffee urn. He tossed off the first cup in one gulp; the second he nursed more slowly.

"I take it you have been questioning Lieutenant Stewart?" Teeheek asked.

Reid shook his head. "No," he said. "As it happens, that wasn't necessary. As soon as we locked him up, he asked for a palm-reader. He spent the next several hours writing out every move he made since Osgood arrived on Centaurus Minor--in exacting detail. What I've been doing is confirming his story. Thus far, everything checks out. I have no doubt that he's telling us the truth, and is greatly relieved to be doing so."

For me as well as Reid, the 0800 meeting had convened entirely too early: despite my exhaustion, I'd slept poorly. Betrayal can do that to you. For days, Stewart had pretended to be my friend. He helped me to retrieve my palm-reader, and didn't blame me for the punishment he suffered as a result; he let me loose from protective custody; he brought me news while I was in the hospital. But all of it had been a lie. At any moment he could have led us to Osgood; he might even have prevented the second attempt on my life, by warning Dr. Zriss that Mayer was being manipulated. And certainly he could have prevented the shuttle crash. But he had chosen to remain silent--and why? To protect his career.

Such were my thoughts, as I lay in bed and stared at the ceiling, desperate to sleep but totally unable. And as I brooded, my anger grew, until I could hardly restrain myself from going to his cell and ripping out his liver with my own claws.

…But eventually I looked over at Dad--and it was as if someone had doused me with icewater. Stewart wasn't the only one who'd made an agonizing decision, and come down on the side of self-preservation. Nor the only one to live to regret it. A CF commission is the hardest-won accomplishment in the Alliance, Dad once told me. I wondered now if it might be a little too hard-won; if those stars on one's chest could become so prized a possession, such an end unto themselves, that they skewed their owner's priorities. I'd never know. Finally I drifted off to sleep, with nothing resolved--and into a series of spectacular dreams that left me wrung-out and with a pounding headache. My contributions to the meeting would likely be small to nonexistent.

We had assembled the usual cast that morning: Admiral Teeheek and Commander Reid, Lummis, Dad and myself…and last--and least, so it seemed--Commander Hammond. The Fabrication Center's Security Chief looked, if anything, worse than Reid. And with good reason. The previous morning's revelations may have sounded the death-knell for his career…but last night's pounded in the nails and threw down the first shovelful of dirt. He had gone beyond fear into hopelessness; he sat dead-eyed and expressionless, his face ashen, waiting for the inevitable. Which came almost immediately, and with ruthless efficiency.

"Commander Hammond," Teeheek said coldly, "you are familiar with the details of Lieutenant Stewart's arrest?"

He scarcely looked at her. "Yes, Admiral, I am."

"Then will you please tell us how it happened that he, while under your command, was able to conceal Mr. Osgood in this building--and aid him in committing acts of terrorism as well?"

Hammond hesitated, then said, in hollow, mechanical tones, "Mr. Stewart's impeccable service record, and his seniority among my lieutenants, led me to place a great deal of trust in him. Perhaps more than he deserved--but that is hindsight." He looked up. "And if I'm not mistaken, Admiral, not long ago you accepted my recommendation that he be promoted…"

Teeheek hissed, a venomous sound that was not translated. "That is true," she said finally. "Perhaps we have all been guilty of placing trust where it is not deserved."

Hammond accepted the rebuke without flinching. He glanced at Reid, then said flatly, "Admiral, this morning I gave you my letter of resignation. May I ask whether you intend to accept it?"

Teeheek began to answer--but Reid interrupted. "No," he said. "My apologies, Admiral, but my orders are clear. We cannot accept the resignation of any officer until this matter is entirely cleared up--and we know whether it will be necessary for charges to be filed."

Hammond's cheeks flushed, just for an instant; then he shrugged. "As you wish."

Dad cleared his throat. "This is all very interesting," he said, "but may I ask a question?"

"Of course, Mr. Abrams," Teeheek said--with a level of respect that had not been evident until recently.

Dad leaned back, his hands behind his head. "In our rush to assess blame," he said, "we're neglecting two things. First and most serious, Osgood is still out there somewhere. And second, has it occurred to anyone that we ought to be questioning Stewart's partner, Lieutenant Mazzaro?"

"Mr. Reid?" Teeheek said.

"As to the first," Reid said, "we are doing everything we can to locate Mr. Osgood. My request for additional forces has been approved; a contingent from Centaurus will arrive later today. More importantly, we have Osgood trapped. We've cut off his escape routes, as well as his sources of supplies and information. It's only a matter of time until he's found."

Dad stirred, but said nothing, and Reid went on, "As for the second--with your permission, Admiral?"

She nodded. "Of course."

Reid tapped the intercom. "Send him in."

Seconds later the door opened, and not surprisingly, it was Mazzaro who entered. He was dressed for patrol, his helmet under his arm; probably they'd called him off guard duty somewhere. He stopped short in the doorway, his expression changing instantly from an impatient scowl to one of surprise.

Reid gestured to a chair at the foot of the table. "Please be seated, Lieutenant," he said. "We won't keep you long."

Mazzaro did so, and waited in silence, his gaze darting from one face to another, while Reid drained off the rest of his coffee and stood, rubbing his eyes tiredly.

"Thank you for coming," the commander said finally. "I'm well aware how quickly the rumor mill operates--so it's probably pointless to ask if you know what happened to your friend Lieutenant Stewart."

Mazzaro's jaw hardened. "I do, sir," he said. "But he's no friend of mine. Not any more."


Mazzaro shook his head. "He was--there's no point in denying it. Neil and I have been partners, buddies, since I was first posted here, two years ago. But no longer."

"Why not?"

Mazzaro chuckled bitterly. "I'd say that's pretty obvious, Commander. Neil used me. I went out on a limb after he was suspended, trying to get Commander Hammond to reinstate him. And for what? Just so he'd be free to help that bastard Osgood." He glanced at me. "Anybody who could participate in an attempt to murder a seventeen-year-old boy…isn't someone I want to know any more. In fact I don't think I ever really knew him at all."

Reid cleared his throat. "Which brings us to the heart of the matter," he said. "You yourself are not under suspicion, Lieutenant, nor accused of any wrongdoing. But it is extremely important that we learn as much as we can about Lieutenant Stewart--and since you were his closest friend…"

"You're asking me," Mazzaro said flatly, "if I know anything about Neil's involvement with the PPS, or with Osgood. And the answer is no. I do not."

"Nothing at all?" Reid persisted, a note of disappointment in his measured tones.

Mazzaro shrugged. "If I wracked my memory," he said, "I could probably convince myself I'd noticed him getting twitchy. And maybe I really did. But anything concrete, anything that would help you track down Osgood…no. We were friends, but we didn't live in each other's pockets. I always knew that some parts of his life were off-limits--and I respected that. I figured the least I owed him was a little privacy." He shook his head. "I wish I hadn't," he said. "I wish I'd pried into every damned detail. But I didn't."

Reid glanced at my father and me. Dad's expression remained neutral, though his eyes were narrowed; and when the commander's gaze fell on me, I looked away. I honestly didn't know what to think. Since arriving on Minor I'd had far more contact with Mazzaro than Stewart--and I'd come to trust him, far more than I did his ex-partner. I still wanted to, very much; a part of me was desperate to believe him. But a deeper, darker part wasn't quite so sure. You trusted Stewart too, it whispered. And look where it got you.

Finally Reid sighed. "You may return to your duties, Lieutenant. If you think of anything else that might help us, however insignificant it seems, contact me immediately."

"Yes, sir," Mazzaro said. He departed then; but on his way out he paused and laid a hand on my shoulder. "I'm really sorry, Tom," he said quietly. "If I'd known what was happening…"

I didn't reply, and with a sigh the lieutenant left the room.

"Are you satisfied, Mr. Abrams?" Reid asked, and Dad shook himself, as if fighting free from deep thoughts.

"Not really," he said. "But for the moment it will have to suffice."

Reid quirked an eyebrow, then turned to Lummis. "Do you have anything for us?"

Lummis sighed. "Very little, I fear," he said. He consulted his reader. "I managed to track Osgood's movements after he arrived on Minor. He apparently checked into the Yellowsands Hotel in Discovery Valley--the desk clerk identified him from a holo. He used the name Stephen Conroy."

Dad chuckled. "It was him," he said with certainty. "He either has no imagination, or a truly warped sense of humor."

"He stayed just one night," Lummis said. "After that we lose track of him--but from what Lieutenant Stewart has told us, it appears he moved into this building immediately after."

Across the room, Hammond snorted derisively, proving that he wasn't yet drained of all life. "That was a waste of time," he said. "We know how Osgood got into the Center--who the hell cares what he was doing before?"

"We might," Reid said, "if it proves he had accomplices. Did he have any visitors during his hotel stay?"

Lummis shook his head. "Apparently not," he said. "None that the security cameras caught. Nor did he leave his room--he ordered his dinner, and his breakfast the next morning, from his room's autokitchen terminal. He made one brief visiphone call, at about midnight. We had some difficulty tracing it, but it seems to have been made to this very Center. The recipient is unknown--but we can deduce who it was."

Reid nodded. "You see?" he asked Hammond. "Even negative evidence can be useful. I think we can safely assume that Stewart was Osgood's only contact on Minor. Anything else, Mr. Lummis?"

"No," the engineer-turned-spy said. "I'm still waiting for a message from Terra. The Bureau is trying to trace Osgood's movements before he boarded the shuttle in Australia."

Reid nodded again. "Out of our hands," he said. "I've recommended to Admiral Brewer that CF Security coordinate its efforts with the AIB; whether they actually will is another matter. But clearly this case has implications far beyond the Isaac Haliday project. When Osgood is found, he must be taken alive--and made to identify those who sent him, by any means necessary."

The tone in his voice as he spoke those last few words chilled me to the bone. I had some idea of the interrogation methods available to CF Security--mind-probes and truth-drugs, for starters--but it was not a subject I cared to dwell on. Osgood's a racist, a terrorist and a murderer, I reminded myself sharply. He deserves whatever he gets.

Reid turned to Teeheek. "For the moment," he said, "it appears we can do little except wait for the troops to arrive."

The admiral opened her mouth, intending probably to dismiss the meeting--but she was interrupted, as the door flew open and an officer entered. A lieutenant, she was young, human and dark-haired, and wore a grey Survey uniform with a green Scispec patch, just like my mother's--the first I'd seen on Minor. Ignoring the rest of us, she hurried across the room and handed a palm-reader to Teeheek.

The admiral shot a quick, irritated glance at the intruder, then gazed down at the reader--and her crest suddenly rose to its full height. "Standard procedure," she told the lieutenant. "Inform Ops I will be there in five minutes to review the situation."

"Yes, ma'am," the lieutenant said crisply, and departed as quickly as she'd come. Teeheek rose.

"I have some urgent business to attend to, gentlemen. This meeting is adjourned. Commander Hammond, come with me." She handed the reader to Reid. "This might interest you, ," she told him, and then she and Hammond hurried out.

"What was that all about?" Reid muttered. He looked down at the reader--and his eyes widened. "--Oh."

"Problem, Commander?" Dad asked.

"I'm afraid so." Reid rubbed his forehead tiredly. "This is a meteorological report," he went on. "You're no doubt aware of the windstorms that always accompany the dawn on Centaurus Minor…"

"Yes," Dad said. "Though I've never actually experienced one."

"I appear to have lost track of time," Reid admitted in chagrin. "The latest storm will be here within the hour--and it is a Level Seven."

"Good God!" Dad exclaimed. "That big?"

"Would somebody mind telling me what that means?" I asked, and across from me, Lummis nodded agreement.

"And me too," he said.

Dad's face was ashen. "A Level Seven sandstorm is extremely rare," he said. "The usual maximum is Four or Five. A Seven only occurs every six years or so. It has something to do with the tides…"

I cleared my throat. "Uh, Dad," I said, "that's fascinating, but what's the practical upshot?"

"Sustained winds of four hundred kilometers per hour," he supplied blandly.

"--And a suspended load of five kilos of sand and grit per cubic meter of air," Reid added.

"A storm like that hit when your mother and I were still in the Officer's Academy," Dad said. "It lasted three days--and when it finally subsided, three-quarters of this Center's domes were completely buried. Took weeks to dig out. One of my engineering instructors used it as the basis for a lecture--he had video recordings taken from this building, and from orbit. I've never seen anything like it."

"Are we in danger?" I asked.

"No," Reid said. "This building is designed to withstand storms up to Level Ten--an intensity which is as yet only theoretical. There is a strong magnetic field, maintaining the balance between flexibility and rigidity; and there are also--"

He broke off then, interrupted by a deep, quiet rumble. We turned, just in time to see massive, ribbed metal panels slide down over the windows. "--Blast shields," he finished. "For us personally, this will be little more than an inconvenience. But for our investigation, it may well be disastrous."

"Why?" I asked.

"Because we're about to be cut off from the rest of the universe," Dad said grimly. "No shuttle could land during a storm that fierce--and no pilot would try. And all that dry dust ionizes the atmosphere; all the comm channels will probably be out for the duration."

My jaw dropped, and I turned quickly to Reid. "Your additional troops?"

"Most likely will not arrive in time," the commander said. He rose. "Excuse me, please," he said. "I must find out how long my forces will be stuck on Centaurus."

He headed for the door--but then, surprising myself greatly, I grasped his arm. "Commander, I'd like to ask a favor of you."

He frowned. "A simple one, I hope," he said. "I have work to do."

"I…," I began, and I swallowed hard. "I want to talk to Lieutenant Stewart."


The Fabrication Center's "secure housing" unit was nothing to write home about--but the brig was something devoutly to be avoided.

As I made my way along the dim, narrow corridor, lined on both sides with empty, shoebox-sized cells, I found myself remembering a story my mother once told me, of her visit to Lieutenant Commander Gaetano in jail on Outpost Ten, years before I was born. There was just one significant difference: the cells she passed weren't empty, but all too full. Every one of Raven's senior officers, except her, had been under arrest, on charges ranging from Conduct Unbecoming to premeditated murder. To run that gauntlet, to pass them all by, was, she said, the hardest thing she'd ever done.

I don't know why I'm doing this, I thought, just as she herself had. What could I hope to accomplish? Gaetano at least had a story to tell, and had answered questions that had driven my mother crazy all through the sixty-plus days of her stranding. What could Stewart have to say that would be of any use? Probably nothing. Nor did I have any assurance that he'd even talk to me.

A little more than an hour had passed since the meeting broke up, and the Fabrication Center was officially in a Stage One alert. The sandstorm had struck right on schedule, accompanying the dawn; and not gradually either, but with the force of a fusion torpedo. Usually I thought of air as a thin, fluid medium--but no longer. What slammed into the Administration Building was at least semi-solid. Deep within the structure, almost no sound of the raging, screaming wind could be heard, and it was business as usual--or near enough. The jittery vibration I'd felt through my sensitive toes as I descended from the upper floors was entirely my imagination. I hoped. Down here at least, in the sub-basement, things seemed steady enough, and pin-drop silent.

Five meters off the main corridor, the narrow hallway ballooned into a reception area, and there, in the middle of a circular bank of monitor screens, sat a young, attentive-looking Security ensign, a Centaurii. He studied me closely as I approached, his beady gaze taking in my face and my clearance badge all at once. "You are Thomas Abrams?" he asked.

"That's right," I said. "I'm here to see Lieutenant Stewart--"

"I know," the ensign said. "Commander Reid just called in his permission." He pointed farther down the hall. "Cell Seventeen," he went on. He clicked his beak. "The only one occupied."

I hesitated, pondering whether to ask him to deactivate the stinger barrier. Mom had entered Gaetano's cell; for her it seemed to have been a matter of pride. And it was highly unlikely that Stewart would attack me; what would he have to gain? But I didn't have my mother's chutzpah--not quite, anyway. "Thanks," I said, and circled the desk. How did she do it? I wondered, as I made my way down the hall. All those eyes, staring at hersome in hatred and contempt, some in entreatyhow did she stand it?

Finally I drew up before the one and only lighted cell, and there I paused, rooted to the spot, shuddering in sympathetic horror. The space was roughly the size of my bedroom closet. The bulk of it was filled with a narrow bench--padded, but uncomfortable-looking--cantilevered into the rear wall. To the right was a tiny washbasin, and to the left the toilet--or "head"--in plain sight, not shielded in any way. And that was all. Forget Mom, I thought. How did Dad stand it?

Stewart lay with his back to me, curled around himself with his arms over his head, in an apparent attempt to block the bright and relentless ceiling lights. Instead of his uniform, he wore a green jumpsuit, the letter "P" stenciled in red on its back. A palm-reader lay on the floor near his head. He appeared to be asleep, and I had just about decided to abandon my errand and get the Dark out, when he stirred, rolled over, and sat up, all in one smooth motion. He rubbed his eyes and ran a hand through his hair--and if I expected a smile, I was disappointed. What I got was a deep scowl. "Tom," he said flatly.

"Lieutenant," I said. "May I--speak to you?"

He smiled humorlessly, and pointed to the tooth-like rows of stinger discharge points lining the cell door. "Doesn't appear to be much I can do to prevent it." He rose and crossed to the washbasin, ran a little water, and splashed his face. Lacking a towel, he dried himself on his sleeves. Then he leaned against the door-frame, in a pose of exaggerated nonchalance. "I suppose you're here for an apology, or an explanation," he said tiredly.

I shook my head. "No," I said. "Why should I want either? I heard your explanation last night. And I've heard your apologies too. Frankly I found the explanation easier to believe."

Once again he smiled. "Osgood had a point," he observed. "You are dangerous, Tom Abrams. You're far smarter than you ought to be at your age."

"Not smart enough," I said ruefully. "I have a nasty habit of acting before I think. It's almost gotten me killed twice--and it earned me a crew-cut and a pair of handcuffs once too."

"I won't ask," he said. He crossed his arms. "Well then, what are you here for?"

"Answers," I said. "Everything about this situation has been explained--except that second attempt on my life. It just doesn't add up. Someone sent me a message while I was in custody, and it led me to that dome. Whoever sent it must have known I couldn't resist the temptation to check it out. Logic says it was Mayer--but I can't believe that. Mostly because he was completely irrational by then--but there are other reasons too."

"Such as?" Stewart said, half-intrigued and half-amused, like a child listening to a particularly interesting bedtime story. There was an element of condescension too, in his tone and in his eyes. It made my claws express, something I didn't try to hide. He seemed not to notice.

"Access, for one," I said. "Could Mayer have bypassed all the security protocols to get that message to me? And second--why such an elaborate plot? After luring me to the dome, why not just shoot me? It would have been quicker, and cleaner--and surer. I suppose it's possible Osgood wanted me to suffer--but that didn't seem important when he sent Mayer after me the first time. What changed his mind?"

"And what makes you think I know?"

I shrugged. "You had contact with Osgood," I said. "If you don't, then the only person I can ask is him. Unless you believe in voices from beyond the grave."

Stewart grinned. "Touché." Then, abruptly, his bravado collapsed. He sank down on the bench, his head in his hands. "Oh, who the hell am I trying to kid?" he said in sudden despair. "I have nothing left. No career, no friends, no future, no life…and here I sit, trying to blame it on a teenage boy. I'm sorry, Tom. God, how sorry I am!"

I waited silently, and finally he raised his head, his eyes brimming with tears. "All right," he said quietly, but with determination. "I don't know how fully I can answer your questions, but I'll give you what I know, and what I suspect. Maybe that will help."

He paused, collecting his thoughts, and when he began to speak again, his voice had regained some of its former strength. "When Mayer failed to kill you in the museum, Osgood was upset, but he wasn't ready to panic yet, or to give up his mission. He convinced himself that what he'd done to Mayer wouldn't be discovered, at least not for a while. And of course Mayer was still useful as a distraction; even locked in the Med Center, he occupied a good part of Hammond's time and attention.

"But then it became clear that you and your father had begun to ask questions--and that your father in particular didn't believe Mayer was as crazy as he was thought to be. Osgood hates Joel Abrams, true--but he also fears him, and respects his intelligence and his engineering skill. Osgood was afraid that with your father pressuring the authorities, Mayer's altered implants might be discovered--which of course would have led to an internal investigation. And so he began to plan Mayer's escape.

"In theory it should have been simple. Mayer was considered non-violent, docile, and was lightly guarded. He could almost have walked out of the Medical Center. It was easy enough for Osgood to manipulate the lights in his room--but for some reason the programming didn't seem to be working any more. Mayer had begun to resist. And then Osgood did become frightened. Dr. Zriss was working closely with Mayer, and having difficulty diagnosing him--probably she'd already begun to suspect external manipulation. She might have stumbled upon the truth at any time."

I cleared my throat. "I'd gotten the impression Osgood defied his superiors," I said. "That his desire for revenge on my parents overrode his instructions from the PPS."

"Partially true," Stewart agreed. "He received a number of communications from Centaurus--I know, because I was in charge of intercepting them and getting them to him. They were coded, but I could tell from his reaction that they weren't exactly welcome. The incident with your palm-reader put a halt to the Haliday project--" He broke off then, and shook his head. "And there's irony for you, because that was my doing, not his. But his superiors weren't satisfied; they wanted something more spectacular. Eventually he gave them the shuttle crash--which may have been more than they were looking for. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

"As far as Mayer was concerned, Osgood could think of nothing to do but increase the level of manipulation--to literally beat Mayer's brain into submission. I warned him it could be dangerous--it might cause Mayer to become totally unstable, or make him aware of what was happening to him. In fact it seems to have done both. The immediate result you know: Mayer went berserk, attacked Dr. Zriss, and escaped into the service tunnels."

"Which is where we started this conversation," I said.

"Exactly," Stewart agreed. "And it's also where I have to start guessing. As time went by, Osgood communicated with me less and less. I'd given him everything I could; he had access to every system, every area, he needed. And too, I think he realized I was growing increasingly disenchanted with the whole operation."

Not disenchanted enough to put a stop to it, I thought sourly; but I said nothing, and Stewart continued.

"I wasn't with Osgood the evening Mayer escaped; I was still suspended from duty, and I spent the night in my quarters. In fact I was in no condition to respond, even if Hammond had ordered me to report. But I think I can puzzle out what happened.

"Obviously, Osgood programmed Mayer to head for the service tunnels. That's the only direction he could go, of course. But Osgood badly underestimated how unstable he'd become."

"I've read Mayer's diary," I said. "He knew he was being manipulated, but didn't know how. He seemed to see Osgood as a kind of demonic force."

"I didn't know Mayer kept a diary," Stewart said. "But as for how he viewed Osgood--that doesn't surprise me at all. Mayer was far too emotionally fragile to withstand that kind of pressure. It's almost inevitable that it drove him over the edge into insanity. He paused, shaking his head, then asked, "Tell me--what does the diary say about his escape?"

I pulled out my reader and keyed it. "Not a lot," I said, "and virtually nothing that makes sense. It's almost entirely hallucinatory--like a 20th-Century Terran acid trip."

"Does it seem at any point that Mayer knew where he was going? That he wasn't just running at random?"

I scrolled down a few more lines, frowning. That was a segment of Mayer's manifesto that I hadn't read very thoroughly; partly because it was incomprehensible--and partly because it scared me half to death. Now I forced myself to study it closely, trying to extract the meaning from that chaotic jumble of words. "Yes," I said finally. "It does. He speaks of 'dark figures,' some blocking his path, others urging him on. It's almost as if he was being…herded."

"In a sense, that's true," Stewart said. "I can't prove it--I have only circumstantial evidence--but I believe that, despite Mayer's resistance, Osgood was able to program him not only to escape the Med Center, but also to go to a very specific place among the domes."

"You've lost me," I said. "What place? And why?"

Stewart grinned humorlessly. "As for the 'where,' that's easy enough. He was brought to Dome 15-C-27."

I almost dropped my reader. "Goddess!" I said. "You mean--?"

"Yes," Stewart said. "Again, I can't prove it. But I think Osgood programmed Mayer to take another shot at you--I don't think Mayer did that on his own. I don't believe he could have. Osgood assembled the equipment--easy enough for an ex-CF Techspec--and set Mayer to wait for you."

"But I didn't arrive," I said. "Not for another couple days."

"That's right," Stewart agreed. "You didn't. Osgood was livid when he learned you'd been placed in protective custody--which is the main piece of evidence holding together this chain of assumptions. He'd counted on being able to lure you down to the dome. Not that it would have entirely ruined his plans--even if you never did, Mayer still worked quite well as a loose cannon. That's why Osgood was able to sabotage the shuttle: because most of the Security force was out looking for Mayer. And Lummis too--but that's another story."

"What if I'd arrived with Dad in tow? Or Hammond, or Mazzaro?" I asked.

Stewart shrugged. "Obviously Osgood didn't think that likely. And he was right, wasn't he?"

I turned away, my ears and nose burning, and Stewart went on, "But even if you did…well, it still wouldn't have been a disaster. Osgood would still be on the loose, and Mayer wouldn't be able to finger him. A small price to pay for the chaos he'd caused."

"But that takes us back where we started, again," I protested. "Why such an elaborate plan? Why not just shoot me, and have done with it?"

It was Stewart's turn to glance away. "Isn't that obvious, Tom?" he asked. "Hatred. Osgood hates your mother for what happened all those years ago. Killing you, by whatever means, would have been a way to strike back at her. But then there's your father--who was making too many shrewd guesses. He hadn't yet been able to put a stop to Osgood's activities--but he was getting close. Osgood wanted nothing more than for your father to find you hanging there, frozen to death--because finding you shot wouldn't have hurt enough. Osgood knew your father would feel every minute of the torment you'd suffered--and that's what he wanted. And not only for the sake of revenge, but for the cold, calculated purpose of putting Joel out of action. If he was overcome by grief, he wouldn't be doing any more clever deducing."

"So--what happened?"

"As I said, Osgood underestimated how unstable Mayer had become. Mayer was vacillating between resisting Osgood's programming and giving in to it. When you failed to arrive on time, the pendulum swung--and Mayer left the dome. He found himself a hideout, rigged the interference field that blocked our scanpaks, brought in food and water--" He nodded at my reader. "--And did some writing too, it seems. But he couldn't entirely break free. Every once in a while the programmed part of his mind took control again--and he'd go back to the dome. Did Osgood know about this? My guess is no--he believed Mayer would stay put and wait for you. It was just bad luck that you arrived at the same time Mayer returned--and once you were there, the programming took over entirely. In essence, it wasn't Mayer you talked to that night: it was Osgood."

I thought about that. Then I said, "That leaves only one loose end: the message."

Stewart turned away, and in strangely muffled tones he said, "Osgood sent it. He knew you were to be released the next day, but he couldn't be certain exactly when. He had access to the whole comm system by then--and as such, it wasn't all that difficult to slip the message into your room."

"But how could he have known--" I began, and broke off. Suddenly my claws were expressed, and my tail waving as violently as if it was caught in the sandstorm outside. "You," I growled. I realized then that I'd spoken the word in Sah'aaran, and I swallowed and tried again. "You told him I was going to be released."

For a long moment Stewart sat with his back to me; then finally he nodded. "Yes," he said quietly, "I told him." He looked up at me with haunted, sunken eyes. "Please believe me, Tom--I had no idea anything like that was going to happen. I didn't know why he'd asked…"

"Oh no?" I said icily. "You had absolutely no idea why he wanted to know? When he'd already tried to kill me once? It never occurred to you to wonder? You figured maybe he wanted to be there to shake my hand? You're either a liar or an idiot, Lieutenant--and I wouldn't care to place bets on which."

He shook his head. "I don't know either, any more," he said. "But there's your answer, Tom. I can't prove any of this--but I'm more than ninety percent sure I'm right. All the evidence fits. And of course you know the rest: after he failed again to kill you, Mayer became a liability. Osgood found him and killed him."

I was scarcely listening; I was stuck several sentences back. "I trusted you," I told him. "Do you know that? You and your friend Mazzaro…"

"Leave Tony out of this," Stewart said harshly. "He had nothing to do with it."

"How could you do this to me?" I demanded. "How could you do it to him? He was your best friend, for the Goddess' sake! How could you throw away everything you'd ever earned? Respect, rank, friendship…how could you? Just tell me that."

He stared at me for a few seconds, his jaw working; then he shook his head. "Welcome to the adult world, Mr. Abrams," he said. And then he sank back down onto the bench with his back to me and his arms covering his head, and said nothing more.

And with that…I fled. I remembered Mom's story, and how she'd had to run the gauntlet again, in reverse. Antilles reviled her…and the man who would one day became my father pleaded with her, and proclaimed his love. I had none of that to distract me; just empty, cold, dark cells flashing by on either side as I made my way, almost at a run, past the perplexed guard and into the relative openness of the main corridor.

…And there I paused, my back against the wall and my eyes squeezed tight shut. My hands hung loose at my sides, and I didn't dare rub my throbbing forehead; not until I'd gotten my claws under control. Which--the way they felt--might never happen.

It wasn't Mayer you were talking to that night, Stewart had said--and I believed it. The arrogance, the godlike self-confidence…that could not possibly have come from the mind of poor, confused, used-up Albert Mayer. It was as if Osgood had tried to supplant Mayer's entire psyche with his own. He'd almost succeeded, too--but not quite. That diary, left where it would be found, was Mayer's way of fighting back. His prayers to my mother, who had become a Goddess-like figure to him, were his way of expressing contrition for what he'd been forced to do. Osgood found him and killed him, Stewart said. Might it not be closer to the truth to say that Mayer allowed himself to be found? As with many things, we'd never know.

Someone touched my shoulder then, and a quiet voice spoke into my ear. "Tom--?"

I straightened, my teeth bared in a snarl and my hands rising…to see Lieutenant Mazzaro standing beside me. He took several steps backwards, his hand falling toward his stinger--and the look on his face sobered me down immediately. "Sorry," I said. "I--uh--had a lot on my mind."

He grinned. "Obviously," he said. He paused. "How did it go?"

I shook my head. "I got the answers I was looking for," I said. "All guesswork, more or less--but it makes too much sense not to be true."

"I've been talking to your father," Mazzaro said. "He told me a lot of things I hadn't known before: about himself and your mother, and what happened to them all those years ago." He nodded down the narrow cell-lined hallway. "A part of me wants to go strangle Stewart, for what he did to both of us, and to the CF and the Alliance. But after talking to your dad…a part of me can almost understand. Almost."

"I--" I began, and stopped. I'd been about to say, "I don't think there's a comparison--" but in fact there was. More than I cared to admit. "--want to get out of here," I finished lamely.

Mazzaro grinned. "I don't blame you. Your father sent me to collect you--he's up in the Officer's Mess. Are you hungry?"

A pointless question, my sister would have said--but I actually had to think for a moment before I replied. "Yeah--I guess so."

"Let's go, then."

I hung back, just for an instant, and a brief flash of anger passed across Mazzaro's face, fading quickly into resignation. "I understand," he said softly. "Guilt by association."

I turned away. "I didn't mean…" I began, but he waved that off.

"I understand, Tom," he said. "Really, I do. Between the two of them, Stewart and Hammond have ruined the reputation of every Security officer in this shipyard. And I was Neil's best friend. But I assure you, I'm not here to kidnap you. Your father really did send me to get you." He pointed to a nearby intercom panel. "We can call him, if you like. Believe me, I won't be offended."

To my shame, I actually considered it. "No need," I said finally. "Let's go."

We changed elevators in the lobby, and headed up to the top floor. The lobby was not only deserted, save for a pair of guards; it was dark, the blast shields closed down over the high windows, and over the doors to the shuttle station as well. Straining my ears, I detected a faint hint of the wind's demonic shriek--unless that was my imagination too. It miffed me a little to wait so long for daylight, and then be denied the chance to see it--but those, as someone once said, were the conditions that prevailed.

"What's it like out there?" I said, as the elevator began to climb.

"Last I checked," Mazzaro said, "the winds were up to four hundred and twenty KPH. Any stronger and we'll be edging into a Level Eight. The good news is, it isn't expected to last long. The computers predict the storm will collapse under its own weight within twenty-four hours."

I growled dubiously. Over the years I'd had my fill of computerized weather forecasts--and rained-out backpacking trips too. "What about Reid's reinforcements?"

He shook his head. "They're stuck on Centaurus for the duration. It was damned frustrating: they missed their launch window by less than half an hour. They'll be here, though, as soon as it's safe for them to land."

"And till then…"

"Till then," Mazzaro said firmly, "we have Osgood bottled up, and every officer we can spare is searching for him. Commander Reid has even drafted the techs and the desk-jockeys. We'll find him, Tom. You can be assured of that. Maybe even before the troops arrive."

"I'm sure Commander Hammond hopes so," I commented, and Mazzaro frowned.

"His career is probably over," he said flatly. "Or at very least, he won't be a Chief of Security again anytime soon. Between you and me, Tom, I think the one person who might come out of this intact, if we find Osgood ourselves, is Admiral Teeheek. And only because she has friends in high places."

Maybe fewer than she thinks, I thought wryly. Once a certain outspoken commodore gets through bending their ears.

The elevator had arrived at the top floor by then, and as we stepped from the car, I stopped short, clutching at Mazzaro's arm. "Something wrong?" he asked.

"This building," I said, "is definitely swaying."

He stood still for a few seconds, then shook his head. "I can't feel it."

"I can," I told him. "Trust me."

"If you say so."

The motion wasn't much, just a lazy side-to-side oscillation. Not enough to knock me off my feet, or seriously affect my equilibrium--but quite enough for my inner ear to detect, even if Mazzaro's could not. Easy to ignore--but what it implied was ominous. I only hoped the building's magnetically-reinforced structure could stand the strain.

Dad was indeed waiting for me in the Officer's Mess; and was in fact all but alone. There were only three or four others present, CF all--and was it my imagination, or did they look a little nervous? Not what I'd wanted to see…

"I have to get back to my post," Mazzaro said. "I'll talk to you later--?"

"I hope so," I told him with a smile. "Thanks, Lieutenant."

Dad was seated at a table near the blast-shielded windows, leaning back in his chair, staring at his reader. He hadn't yet eaten, it seemed; but a thermal pot of coffee and two mugs stood before him. I sat, and helped myself, and as I did, he glanced up at me. "Well?" he asked simply.

So I told him, my narrative interrupted by frequent sips of life-restoring fluid. By the time I finished, he was nodding thoughtfully.

"Even though three-quarters of it is speculation," he said, "it does hold together. I'm as inclined as you are to believe it. Except…well, no, it doesn't really matter."

"What doesn't?" I asked.

"It occurs to me," he said carefully, "that it would have been much simpler for Stewart himself to send that message, rather than Osgood. But it doesn't matter either way. It's disingenuous of him to claim he had no idea why Osgood wanted to know when you were being released. Even if he clamped his mind shut and refused to think about it, he must have at least suspected what Osgood was planning. Whether or not Stewart sent the message, he's no less culpable."

I nodded tiredly. "I agree," I said. I shook my head. "It's amazing how quickly your opinions can change. Up to a couple days ago I thought of Mayer as a monster. But now…"

"I know," Dad said. "But the irony doesn't end there. I'm certainly not here to defend Osgood--he had free will, which Mayer didn't--but in the end, the real villain is the late, unlamented Captain Antilles."

"How so?"

He pointed to his reader. "Commander Reid managed to get hold of Osgood's old CF psych file--including some stuff I'd never seen before, even when I was his superior. There's also a kind of post-mortem, mea-culpa report, written after the court-martial. The Admirals were never happy with Osgood as an officer, but he was intelligent, and they thought he might have potential. They believed a CO with a firm hand might be able to turn him around, teach him discipline--and Antilles had a not-undeserved reputation as a taskmaster. He taught Osgood discipline, all right--along with racism. The hell of it, Tom, is that the Admirals were right. Osgood was a classic rebel without a cause. He was desperate to belong to something--anything. He could have been turned in any direction. If only he'd been assigned to someone like Isaac Haliday--but Haliday wasn't 'tough' enough."

"I understand you've been talking to Lieutenant Mazzaro?"

He nodded. "Yes. He came to our quarters just after you left. He was very anxious to convince me he'd known nothing about Stewart's extracurricular activities."

"And do you believe him?"

Dad paused, gazing across the nearly-empty room. Finally he said, "I'm inclined to. More so than I was earlier. I can't explain why; it's just a feeling. Something about him struck me as sincere."

"And you talked to him about …That Ship?"

Dad smiled wryly. "Yes--though I'm not sure how we got on the subject. Don't get me wrong: I was most certainly not out to convince him to forgive Stewart. I have no right to ask that of anyone. I'm damned mad at him--mainly because he helped Osgood to harm you. When he goes to court-martial, I hope they throw the book at him. But…on a certain level I empathize."

I nodded. "I think I do too." I grinned. "But I still want him strung up by his ears. And Osgood too."

Dad nodded. "Naturally," he said. "You're Ehm'ayla's son." He stretched out his arms. "How about something to eat? It's already past noon, believe it or not."

Those words caused me to take a quantum leap, straight through hungry into ravenous. Ehm'rael would have chuckled knowingly--but I figured I'd earned it. I'd had a rough morning.

I was about three-quarters of the way through my steak--and Dad halfway through his chicken-salad sandwich--when Lummis entered. He paused in the doorway, looking around; and then, spying my father and me, made his way purposefully toward our table. "Joel," he said. "Tom."

"Have a seat," Dad said affably. "Can I buy you lunch, Ed?"

"No, thank you," Lummis said, sinking into a chair with evident exhaustion. "As a matter of fact I'm not very hungry. I've been looking over some data from the Bureau--it arrived just before the radio went dead."

"And?" Dad prompted

"And," Lummis said with a grim smile, "it rather ruined my appetite. This situation has them running around in circles. They've been trying to trace Osgood's movements before he left for Centaurus Minor--but they're finding it nearly impossible. The leads seem to dry up faster than they can be pursued. And it gets worse."

"Let me guess," Dad said. "CF Security is refusing to cooperate with the AIB."

"Exactly," Lummis agreed tiredly. "Despite Commander Reid's entreaties. They're pleading 'military secrecy.'"

"Otherwise known as 'embarrassment,'" Dad translated. "Teeheek and Hammond have bungled this situation badly. It's hardly surprising the Admirals would do everything they can to keep it quiet."

Lummis made a sound of disgust. "Maybe," he said. "But don't they understand what's at stake?"

"Certainly they do," Dad said. "But I know how the Combined Forces mind works, Ed. They spent years trying to make me think that way too. And my wife as well--and thank God, they weren't successful in either case. The Admirals know very well what's at stake--but they're damned well not going to let a bunch of civilians tell them what to do. You saw that in action yourself--remember Reid's reaction, when you first met him?"

"Yes," Lummis said. "All too well." He sighed. "Well, obviously there's nothing more we can do until the sandstorm clears. Except hope that Osgood is found." He reached for his reader. "The report from the Bureau did contain one peculiar item…"

What that might be, though, we were not to discover--because at that moment the lights went out.

We sat for a second in total darkness, and across the room someone let out a sharp exclamation, halfway to a scream. Then the emergency lights blinked on, dim and red. Nor was that all. Suddenly the blast-shields were vibrating madly, rattling against the window-frames, and the building was swaying far more violently than before, enough to make me dizzy. "What the hell--?" Dad began.

The voice that rang out from the PA was human, and female, and tightly under control. "Attention. Attention all personnel. This is an emergency. The Administration Building's structural rigidity field has failed. All personnel are to make their way as quickly as possible to the ground floor. Stay away from all windows, and use emergency stairs instead of elevators. Repeat, do not use elevators--use emergency stairs."

The three of us exchanged a horrified glance. "Osgood," Dad said grimly.

"What?" I said. "You don't mean--"

"I do--heaven help us." Dad rose, and pulled me to my feet--and as he did, I realized to my astonishment that I weighed only a fraction what I should: the grav-plates had failed too. This really was serious. "Come on," he said, to Lummis and me both. "This is a very bad place to be right now."