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.




Hands. Again.

Not human ones though; not this time. Nor even Sah'aaran--which would have really left me puzzled. These were slim and oddly cool, bordering on cold, with narrow, stick-like fingers. One lay on my forehead, another on my right side, and two more on my shoulders. Which wasn't too unusual, I guess--except that they all seemed to belong to the same person.

I opened my eyes. I lay on a low, narrow--but reasonably comfortable, all things considered--cot, in the midst of some large, brightly lit, noisy space. Covered to the neck with a thick silver blanket, I was otherwise naked, except for something--far more substantial than gauze--wrapped around my chest and upper abdomen. A breathing mask enclosed my muzzle, the attached tube meandering out of sight to my left. Every ten seconds or so the mask delivered a puff of mist, which tasted and smelled like--well, like medicine--but was cool and remarkably soothing.

"Breathe deeply," a familiar, sibilant voice spoke quietly in my ear. I looked up--and jumped.

Dr. Zriss smiled, exposing her many rows of dark jagged teeth, and winked, a mischievous gleam in her glowing blood-red eyes. "I'm sorry," she said. "Did I startle you?"

"Where'd you learn your bedside manner?" I grumbled. "From Dr. Frankenstein?"

Her grin widened, and she bowed. Fully recovered from her head injury, she appeared to be feeling frisky--if that's the right word. "Breathe deeply," she urged again. "There'll be no pain. The vapor is helping to heal your lung."

I took her advice, and found that the act did not in fact hurt--not much, anyway. And while I did, I looked around curiously.

I lay on a cot, as I said, one of about two dozen, all occupied, in a tight cluster against the wall of what was clearly an exceptionally large dome. Directly to my right was a stool, on which the Hattosh head-shrinker had coiled herself; to the left stood a low folding table, containing everything I'd been carrying when my adventures began: my palm-reader, my ID, my wrist-chrono and collar--and even, neatly folded, my borrowed field-gear. Next to the table stood a squat piece of medical equipment, covered with dials and flashing lights. Emerging from its face, a pair of thick grey tubes ran beneath the cot and vanished under the blanket on my right. My questing fingers told me that they were connected to that thick wrap, which enclosed me like a giant hand. My injured side felt warm, almost flushed, as from increased blood-flow; and a pleasant, rhythmic vibration gently massaged my abused ribs.

Dr. Zriss must have noticed my curious gaze; she smiled and reached across to pat my side. "Accelerated healing," she said, confirming my suspicions. "Those three ribs were badly fractured--and the jagged end of one of them pierced your right lung. If that had been left untended much longer, you might have drowned in your own blood."

I shuddered, remembering the rusty taste that had kept rising to the back of my throat, stronger and more insistent every time I exerted myself. And yes, it had been getting hard to breathe toward the end--though I'd chalked that up to pain and panic. "Am I all right now?"

Dr. Zriss nodded. "You will be," she said. "The treatments--both treatments--should be completed within two hours. After that, we'll turn it over to your body's natural healing processes. You should be fine--but my colleagues suggest that you stay off your feet for at least a week."

At any other time, that news would have been dismaying--but not now. Even the prospect of a year in bed would have been fine with me. I'd had enough excitement to last me a good long time; what I wanted now was peace and quiet--preferably in the company of my bond-mate. I smiled. "So," I said, "the Combined Forces assigns psychiatrists to treat thoracic injuries?"

"I am an MD, you know," she reminded me primly, lifting her arms to display her white lab coat. "But to be strictly truthful, I volunteered to keep an eye on you." She pointed over her shoulder with her upper-left hand, indicating the other bunks. "The real doctors have their hands full at the moment, as you can see."

I could. The patients occupying many of the beds surrounding mine were at least semi-familiar: civilian engineers, my father's colleagues, survivors of the shuttle crash who still hadn't been able to leave the planet. But scattered among them were a fair number of total strangers: CF officers and enlisted, I presumed, injured during the blackout and the resulting events. Judging from the varying amounts of equipment that surrounded them, their injuries ranged from minor to life-threatening. A harried-looking collection of doctors and nurses rushed from bed to bed, checking readouts, giving injections, changing IV packs and offering reassurance. Among them I thought I recognized the Centaurii female who had patched me up after my first encounter with Mayer.

…And far away, on the limit of my vision, I caught a glimpse of someone very familiar indeed: Edwin Lummis, reasonably-good engineer and utterly hopeless government agent. He was unconscious, or asleep, his neck encased in a massive white cervical collar; but he was quite obviously alive. That thought made me feel a good deal better.

I raised my head a few centimeters and peered around, frowning. "Where are we, anyway?" I asked.

Dr. Zriss waved all four arms. "The Evac Center," she said grandly. "Otherwise known as Fusion Core Assembly Dome Number Two."

Of course. It was, by far, the largest dome I'd seen during my long-ago Fabrication Center tour, with a floor almost a hundred meters across. Then, it had been packed full with a bewildering array of machinery, robot tools and conveyor belts, all of which seemed to have vanished--retracted into the floor and ceiling, probably. But that was not to say the place had been emptied--far from it. In fact it was filled nearly to capacity. Clockwise from the "field hospital" where I lay was a mess hall of sorts, in which a number of exhausted-looking CF personnel sat in folding chairs before folding tables, eating emergency rations and drinking bottled water. Beyond that was a dormitory, a dense collection of three-tier bunks, about a quarter of them occupied. The sleepers lay with their blankets pulled up over their heads, blocking out a measure of the light and noise. Nearby, a solid wall of folding screens concealed what was probably the latrines and showers. Farther along, almost directly opposite me, was a temporary command center, a cluster of jury-rigged control panels, jacked into the power and data lines through a tangle of thick cables. And beyond that, completing the circle, more screens enclosed what was certainly a briefing area of sorts, and the "quarters" of the highest-ranking officers. All in all, a neat, efficient setup, absolutely typical of the Combined Forces. My mother would have approved--though she would have bitterly denounced the circumstances that had made it necessary.

"Why here?" I asked. "The emergency is over, isn't it? Main power has been restored…"

Dr. Zriss nodded. "And the storm is over," she added. "But the Administration Building is a mess, to put it mildly. It might be weeks before it's fully habitable again."

I shook my head. And all because of one man. A terrifying, thought, that--all the more so for what it implied. If such a thing could happen here, and with such contemptuous ease…then no CF installation was entirely safe. Commander Reid has his work cut out for him…

Dr. Zriss smiled and slipped off the stool. "I imagine you're anxious to speak to your father," she said.

I nodded. In both senses of the word. "You imagine correctly, Doctor."

"I shall locate him," she said, and slithered off across the dome.

I watched her go, and smiled as I saw the wide aisle that opened in the crowd before her, as if by magic. Evidently I wasn't the only one who found Hattosh slightly creepy. Finally I closed my eyes, and let the sound of voices, footfalls and beeping electronics wash over me like the roar of the surf. My mind was entirely clear now, for the first time, maybe, since I stepped aboard the elevator; and the memories of my last--what? Day? Or two? Or even more?--had begun to fall into place like dominoes, one, two, three. Amazing that so many events could be packed into so short a time. But when I tried to derive some sort of moral from it all, or even a shred of emotion, I came up all but empty. I could feel sorry for Stewart, more or less, and I could feel something like anger toward Osgood. But I couldn't manage even a glimmer of the terrible guilt that had wracked me following the end of the Undercity affair. In those last horrifying moments, as my family and friends struggled to escape, Sah'rajj attacked my sister, and I jumped in to stop him from harming her. During our fight he suffered a--I guess "stroke" is the best word--which left him brain-dead, his higher neurological functions gone forever. And in the weeks that followed, it took the combined--though separate--wisdom of the Goddess, my bond-mate, my family, and a human psychiatrist, to convince me that it hadn't been my fault; that Sah'rajj had essentially done it to himself. So why hadn't that guilt returned to sit on my chest once again? I distracted Stewart from his mission; I caused Osgood to fall into the trench. I was every bit as responsible for their deaths as I was for Sah'rajj's disablement.

Maybe the passage of a year had taught me wisdom; but I think the most likely explanation is the feeling--or rather the near-certainty--that I had been caught up in something unstoppable, maybe even foreordained. I'd been like the ballerina doll atop a toy music-box I once saw in an antique store: trapped, forced to dance in time to music not of my making. And that was why, while I could regret that Wallace Osgood hadn't been given to Isaac Haliday to be straightened out, or that Neil Stewart hadn't told his blackmailers to get stuffed, I understood that their actions had in some sense been inevitable. And so had mine. Not a comfortable thought--but at that time and place, one that filled me with a conviction as close to absolute truth as I'd ever come.

I opened my eyes then, fighting free from thoughts that were threatening to become too deep, and give me a headache. I reached over to the bedside table--noticing as I did that my hand was still a little shaky--and picked up my palm-reader. "I'm going to start calling you 'McGuffin,'" I told it with a smile--and then keyed it to life.

Wonder of wonders, it still worked; my parents had chosen well. I punched for a file directory, and to my relief I discovered nothing that hadn't been there before. No lengthy manifesto from Osgood--not that I'd expected one. He wasn't the type. For which I knew I should be profoundly grateful.

I heard the soft tap of approaching footsteps then, and hurriedly set aside the reader. Two figures were approaching, from the direction of the VIP quarters. Humans both, and male, the older wore grey slacks and a white turtleneck that had seen better days, while the younger was clad in a black CF uniform long overdue for changing. He hung back, a faint smile tugging at the corners of his mouth, while his companion dropped to his knees beside my bunk, gathering me into a rough embrace which, only a few hours before, would have hurt like blazes. His breath, right there next to my ear, came in shuddering gasps, and even without seeing his face I knew he was sobbing helplessly. He wasn't Sah'aaran, but all the same I felt embarrassed on his behalf. "It's all right, Dad," I said. "It's all over." I paused. "And this time it wasn't even my fault."

His breathing seemed to catch, and he held me at arm's length to gaze at me through watery eyes. His face was clean now, his hair and beard combed, and the gash above his eye had been neatly repaired with a white square of dermapatch. The wrinkles at the corners of his eyes and mouth seemed a little deeper now, though, and even he couldn't truthfully call them "laugh lines" any more.

He smiled. "No," he agreed, his voice quiet and slightly hoarse. "This time it wasn't."

Releasing me, he collapsed onto the stool that Dr. Zriss had just quitted. He continued to grip my hand, though, and I didn't try to pull away. Both of us, I knew, were drawing much-needed strength from that grasp.

The other stepped forward then: Commander William Reid, Special Investigator. He too looked a bit better-groomed than the last time I'd seen him, but his eyes were still puffy and red, and his shoulders were slumped; he seemed almost literally to move in a cloud of exhaustion. He cleared his throat. "I'm pleased to see you on the road to recovery, Tom," he said. He pulled over another stool and sat, reaching into his pocket for his reader. "If you feel up to it," he went on, "this may be an opportune moment for you to give us your statement. While Admiral Teeheek and Commander Hammond are otherwise occupied."

Dad frowned. "I'm not sure that's a good idea--" he began, but I shook my head.

"That's all right," I interrupted. "I feel fine. And he's right--I'd much rather do it when those two aren't involved."

Dad shrugged. "Okay," he said dubiously. He glanced sternly at Reid. "As long as it doesn't become an interrogation."

"Perish the thought," Reid said. He turned to me, and nodded. "At your own pace," he said. "There's no need to hurry And if it makes it any easier," he added, "the security cameras in the tunnel began to function again along with the lights. We've already seen the recording of the last two or three minutes of your--experiences."

Which means he might actually believe what I tell him, I thought wryly. So much of it still seemed incredible, even to me. I took a deep breath of healing vapor. "All right," I said. "Here goes…"

By the time I finished, half an hour later, Dad was ghost-white and trembling, gripping my hand hard enough to make the claws express; but Reid, his aplomb fully in place, merely nodded. "That fits with what we already knew," he said thoughtfully. "We found the canister Mr. Osgood had filled with packing foam; and in the control room we found the pressure suits, and the remains of your bonds. And in the storeroom some distance down the tunnel…"

I swallowed. "Stewart."

"Stewart," Reid confirmed sadly. "As you surmised, he died instantly." He shook his head. "A great pity; he truly was an exceptional officer, with a brilliant future."

"Which he'd already thrown away," Dad said, with some rancor.

"As you say," Reid agreed. "But you must surely be grateful to him for saving your son.

"I suppose," Dad said. "But only to a certain extent. If not for the help Stewart gave Osgood, Tom might never have been in danger in the first place."

"True enough," Reid said. "Still, a pity."

"I have a feeling," I said, "that he didn't intend to go on living--if he'd actually succeeded in killing Osgood, I mean. I think he would have turned his stinger on himself."

"Perhaps so," Reid said. "Certainly his burden of guilt was great--and he would have had nothing to look forward to, except life imprisonment. But unless he left a message which we have yet to find, we may never know exactly what was in his mind."

"Something else I've been wondering," I said. "How did Osgood find Stewart and me so quickly? He didn't seem to have a flashlight or a scanpak--and Stewart had stolen his goggles."

Reid shook his head. "That too we may never know," he said. "But we may speculate. In the better-lit portions of the shaft, he may have followed your tracks in the dust. And when the light failed--perhaps he heard your voices." He quirked an eye. "I'm a bit surprised you didn't hear him coming."

I grinned ruefully. "At that point," I told him, "I couldn't hear much except my own heartbeat and breathing."

"Of course," Reid said. "But beyond that…we can only say that he was very, very determined."

I shuddered. "What about his 'associates'?" I asked. "Was there really a ship waiting to pick him--us--up?"

Reid nodded. "There was," he said. "Or so we surmise. A small private-registry freighter entered the system through the Alpha hypertunnel--the Earth-bound one--during the later stage of your captivity. It refused to respond to hails. Before it could be intercepted, however, it bent its course toward the Gamma node, and vanished. That tunnel leads to the heart of Alliance territory; the CF is attempting to trace the ship, but their chances are small at best."

"I guess that leaves me with only one question, then," I said. "Who figured out where to find Osgood?"

The commander bowed. "I claim that distinction," he said. "Though quite belatedly, as it happens. I had--as had we all--become so thoroughly convinced that Osgood would try to reach Discovery Valley, it was only with great difficulty that I forced myself to think outside the box." He glanced at Dad. "Your father agreed with me, and along with Lieutenant Mazzaro and his squad, we started down the tunnel to the mass-driver. At that moment main power came back on, and we decided then that a tube-car would be much faster." His face fell. "Too fast, perhaps. I was at the controls--and I had overridden most of the safeties, in the interest of speed."

I shook my head. "I can't be sure what Stewart's intentions were," I said. "But in Osgood's case I'm certain. By that point, he definitely didn't want to go on living."

"Because he had seen the error of his ways, no doubt?" Reid said archly.

"Maybe," I said. "Or maybe he just didn't want to go back to prison. Or…" I swallowed again. "Maybe he couldn't stand owing his life to Ehm'ayla's son. We'll never know."

"We never will," Reid agreed. "And believe it or not, sometimes that can be a good thing."

Dad held up his hand. "May I be permitted a question?" he asked mildly.

"Certainly, Mr. Abrams."

"Uh--sure, Dad."

He glanced from Reid's face to mine and back again, his expression grim. "One word," he said. "Antilles. Is there any chance at all that Osgood was telling the truth?"

Reid glanced aside, looking troubled. "Unfortunately," he said, "yes. There is. Some information came into my hands just a few hours ago--as it happens, it was intended for Mr. Lummis, but since he is temporarily…"

"Non compos mentis?" Dad suggested, and Reid nodded.

"Exactly. I decided to review the data myself. It has since been confirmed by my superiors. And what it told me…well, there are matters of Alliance and CF security involved, but suffice it to say that it's beginning to look possible that Antilles' demise on Pharos III may have been staged."

Dad and I exchanged a horrified glance. Then I said, "And what about the 'fine friends' Osgood claimed Antilles has?"

Reid pursed his lips. "On that I have no data," he admitted. "But once again, we can speculate. Consider the consequences, if Antilles' plans were to come to fruition--as unlikely as that seems."

I nodded thoughtfully. "Chaos," I said. "The breaking of the Alliance. And a Terran war of conquest, with Antilles as supreme commander."

Reid nodded. "Exactly. No world, no species that is currently a member of the Alliance would benefit from such a holocaust. Nor would any business concern, so far as I can see. The webs of commerce and supply are too interconnected; everyone would suffer. Even the arms merchants. But a species outside the TCA's boundaries, one that would not be averse to picking up some additional territory with little effort…they might be all too happy to see the Alliance dissolve in civil war."

Dad cleared his throat. "It seems to me," he said, "that you're describing the Chrysaoan Hegemony."

"I am indeed," Reid confirmed solemnly.

"But that's impossible," I objected, and the two men turned to me in surprise.

"How so?" Reid asked.

"Antilles is a racist," I explained. "He hates non-Terrans. There's no way he'd cooperate with them…"

"At first hearing, it sounds unlikely, true," Dad agreed. "But I don't think it's impossible. When Antilles went to prison, his plans were a shambles: his theories exposed and discredited, his supporters either scattered or imprisoned themselves. He'd have to start from scratch--and in that event, I think he'd accept whatever help he could get. Make no mistake, though--he isn't stupid. If he has taken up with the Jellies, he knows full well what their agenda is. Probably he has it in mind to double-cross them eventually, when he figures he's gotten everything from them he can."

"If so," Reid said, "he is playing a very dangerous game--as history has shown. But," he went on briskly. "that is sheer speculation, something which has served us all poorly of late. Osgood may have been talking through his hat, as the old saying has it; his sole intention may have been to frighten his captive."

"If so," I echoed, "it worked."

"Scarcely surprising," Reid said dryly. "And in any event," he went on, before I could protest, "that is a matter for CF Security and Alliance Intelligence. I don't imagine you need be overly concerned about it." He stood, and pocketed his reader. "If you'll excuse me, I must find Admiral Teeheek. I trust I will see you both later."

With that he departed. We watched in silence as he lost himself in the swirling crowd; then Dad turned to me, his eyes filled with concern. "Now that that's over," he said, "how are you, Tom--really?"

I smiled, as reassuringly as I could. "Much better," I said. "The ribs hardly hurt at all any more…"

"Glad to hear it," he said. "But that isn't exactly what I meant."

I nodded. "I know." I inhaled more mist. "I'm…coping," I told him. "Trying not to dwell on it. It's over--really over, this time--and that's what I'm trying to focus on." I chuckled bitterly "Ask me again tomorrow, though, and you might get a different answer."

"I understand," he said softly. He paused. "You know, your mother was mad as hell a year ago when I sent you and Rae to a psychiatrist…"

I grimaced. "So I've heard."

He sighed. "You know the drill: Sah'aarans are self-sufficient; they solve their own problems, and they don't burden others with their emotional difficulties. But I knew how well that worked for her, after Raven, and I didn't want either of you to go through what she did." He glanced away. "I guess what I'm saying is, if you find you need that kind of help again…"

"You'll be the first to know," I assured him. "Believe me." I hesitated, and then, catching his gaze and holding it firmly, I went on, "How are you?"

He smiled tiredly. "Physically, I'm just fine--for a man twice my age. Emotionally…don't even ask. This time it wasn't your fault--I realize that--but almost losing you for the third time in less than two weeks…it was almost more than I could endure. Until Reid figured out that Osgood must have snatched you, I was absolutely certain you'd been caught by the blowout. I was trying to reconcile myself to the idea that they'd never even find your body. And failing." He laughed hollowly. "Maybe the psychiatrist had better save some room on her couch--she might end up analyzing two for the price of one."

I reached out my arms, and once again he gathered me into his embrace. And as he did, I felt my throat begin to tighten, in a way that the medicated vapor was powerless to cure. What can I say? So many of my human friends claimed to hate their fathers--though I'd always figured that what they really hated was the fact that their fathers wouldn't let them do whatever they wanted. And if I was to think about it, I guess Dad had gotten on my nerves a fair number of times. That's inevitable. But never in my wildest dreams could I have managed to hate him. Whether that's a Sah'aaran thing, or just my thing, I don't know--and I don't care. He had never let me down, not when it really mattered, and that was all that counted.

When finally he released me, I nodded toward the far side of the makeshift infirmary. "How is Mr. Lummis?" I asked.

"He'll be all right," Dad said. "He had a serious concussion, with some swelling of the brain, and two crushed vertebrae in his neck. Fortunately, though, his spinal column remained intact. Before we know it, he'll be his old annoying self again."

"Good to hear," I said--and strangely, it was. I scarcely knew him, and had little enough reason to like him--but somehow it relieved me greatly to know that he would recover. Maybe--probably, even--I was just glad that the body count hadn't risen any higher.

"But," Dad said, "I imagine he's out of the spy business. I hope so, anyway."

"So do I," I said with a grin. "For all our sakes." I paused then, and swallowed hard, glancing across the dome in the direction Commander Reid had taken just a moment before. "He's showing my statement to Admiral Teeheek, isn't he?" I asked.

Dad nodded. "Most likely. She is in charge around here--for now, anyway."

"And when she's read it--?"

He laid his hand on my shoulder. "You did nothing wrong, Tom," he said softly. "Nor anything to be ashamed of. Reid knows that."

I smiled thinly. "He does, maybe," I agreed. "But does she?"

"Probably not," Dad admitted. "She and Hammond bluster and threaten--that's only to be expected. But in the end, Reid's is the only opinion that matters. He has the Admiralty's ear--Teeheek doesn't. Not any more. She'll be damned lucky to come out of this with her career intact, if you ask me."

I growled. "If she does," I said, "it'll be more than she deserves."

Dad shook his head. "I'm not entirely sure of that," he said mildly. "The more I think about it, the more I realize that none of this was really her fault. But I don't doubt your mother would agree with you, if she were here."

Mom, I thought suddenly. Great Goddess, Mom! How was I ever going to explain any of this to her? Or Ehm'rael? Or--worse yet--Ehm'tassaa? And live through the telling? Cross that bridge when I come to it, I guess. "And Hammond?" I asked.

"Him, I do blame," Dad said. "Technically, for the moment, he's still Chief of Security for the Center--but I doubt that will last long. Probably no longer than it will take for Admiral Brewer to name his replacement."

"Lieutenant Commander Kincaid?" I guessed.

"Maybe," Dad said. "Maybe not, too." He squeezed my arm, and stood. "If you'll excuse me," he continued, "I need to see if I can find someone to take me upstairs, so I can check on our belongings." He smiled. "I have a feeling we won't be hanging around much longer."

Works for me. "All right, Dad."

"Is there anything you need before I go?"

I pointed toward the ersatz dining hall. "Some food would be nice," I said. "And is there any chance of a cup of coffee?"

"Doubtful," Dad said. "Evidently Admiral Teeheek didn't consider that a necessity--but then she's not human. I'll see what I can do, though." He hesitated--and then did something he hadn't in a very long time, and which in other circumstances would have embarrassed me half to death: he bent down and kissed me on the forehead. "Get some rest now."

Like I have a choice…


The next morning--my very last on Centaurus Minor--I was "invited" to a meeting. I didn't really feel like attending, for several reasons--but refusal wasn't an option. And as it turned out, I wouldn't have missed it for the world.

The remainder of the previous day--what little there'd been left of it--I spent quietly. Not long after Dad left, a CF enlisted man arrived, bearing food and drink--meaning emergency rations and bottled water. No coffee, alas. As I ate, devouring the tasteless meat-concentrate bars as if they were prime cuts of fillet mignon, it occurred to me to wonder what time it was--and exactly how many meals I'd missed. My wrist chrono, in easy reach on the bedside table, told me that it was early evening, CF time--and that more than two days had passed since my adventures began. That seemed ludicrous, unbelievable--but it was quite true, and I had no choice but to accept it. The better part of forty-eight hours was missing from my life, and I doubted I'd be getting it back anytime soon.

During my meal, I'd pushed the breathing-mask farther up onto my muzzle, uncovering my mouth. In doing so, no doubt I broke some rule or another--but as it turned out, it didn't matter. About half an hour after I finished my--dinner, I guess, though it could as easily have been breakfast--a formidable-looking human nurse arrived and removed all the equipment from my body: the mask, yes, and its attendant vaporizer, and also the accelerated-healing device that embraced my middle. She replaced the latter with an elastic wrap, a little thicker and tighter than the one I'd worn before. "That should hold you," she said, and flashed a wicked smile. "Provided you don't engage in any more death-defying acrobatics for a while." She hurried off before I could reply--not, of course, that there would have been a lot of point.

After that I was left pretty much alone--and that was fine with me. For a time I lay and watched the constant stream of humans, Centaurii and others that swirled through the dome, all of them intent on their errands, and all in a terrible hurry. That made me dizzy, though, and finally I reached for my palm-reader. It was the work of only a moment to hook it into the Fabrication Center's main computer, and for the next hour I scanned the news-feeds, chuckling bitterly at the half-truths and outright lies the CF was shoving down the throats of an unsuspecting media. If only they knew…Mom would have been livid: she had never been a fan of disinformation.

After a time the words began to dance and blur before my eyes. I put aside the reader and turned over, pulling the blanket up under my chin. I intended, and very much desired, to sleep--but I failed. The dome was too bright, too noisy, too strange, too filled with shifting scents. Finally I flagged down a nurse and requested a med-patch. After that I slept, deeply--but not exactly peacefully. Under the circumstances, I guess, sweet dreams were a little much to expect. What I got was an endless replay of my last two days, jumbled, obfuscated and symbolized almost beyond recognition. It wasn't a nightmare, not quite--but it wasn't exactly a Child's Garden of Verse either. When I woke, a little after oh-six-hundred, I felt wrung-out, my entire body stiff and sore and my mouth dust-dry from panting, and I had a splitting headache.

I could probably have made it to the meeting under my own power--but the docs were taking no chances. It wasn't an orderly who pushed my float-chair, though; in fact it was Lieutenant Mazzaro.

When he arrived, with the aforementioned chair in tow, I was resting, after a breakfast consisting of water and a self-heating meal-pack of beef stroganoff, and a much-needed trip to the head, leaning heavily on the arm of an unflappable Centaurii nurse. When I caught sight of my friend the Security man, my heart sank--but his broad smile eased my fears, if only a little. "Up and at 'em, kiddo!" he said brightly. "Admiral Teeheek has requested the pleasure of your company."

I shook my head. "Can I take a rain-check?"

His smile fell a trifle. "My orders," he told me, "are to deliver you by any means necessary--vertical, horizontal or anywhere in between."

Translation, I thought sourly, it's time for me to be raked over the coals. Though, as it turned out, that wasn't quite correct. "Since you put it that way…"

He helped me to don that too-large set of field gear--the only clothes I had available--and then half-lifted me out of bed into the chair. As he worked, I peered at him sidelong, seeking some sign that would either confirm or deny my suspicions. My gaze must have been a little more obvious than I'd intended, though, because finally he sighed and shook his head. "You're wondering if I blame you for Neil's death," he stated flatly.

I glanced aside. "Something like that, yes."

"Well, you can quit worrying," he replied, "because I don't. How could I? He made his own choices, followed his own path. You were just in the wrong place at the wrong time. He decided to throw his life away, and that was that."

As he spoke, his voice and his face both hardened--but I knew (or hoped, anyway) that his anger wasn't directed at me. There was a note of disappointment in his tone too, which saddened me--but I certainly couldn't blame him for it. I'd felt it myself. Gazing up into his eyes, I said, "If it had been you instead of him…"

"It wouldn't," he snapped, and I shrugged.

"Maybe not," I said evenly. "But assume for a moment that it had. What would you have done differently?"

For a moment he stood silent, his eyes blazing; then he glanced aside and shook his head. "I don't know," he admitted. "Maybe nothing--or maybe everything. It depends."

I nodded. "Exactly."

He chuckled. "You are too smart for your own good," he said. "I just hope you live long enough for your wisdom to catch up with your intelligence."

"Me too."

He glanced anxiously over his shoulder. "We'd better get going," he went on. "I don't think the admiral is in the mood to be kept waiting."

With little other choice then, I sat back and relaxed as Mazzaro propelled my chair across the dome, dodging the constant stream of CF personnel. Even after all this time, the majority of them were unfamiliar--but all too obviously, they knew me. Most of the gazes they cast my way were merely curious, but a few were decidedly unfriendly, and I wondered what sort of wild rumors were circulating. Was I suspected of having been Osgood's accomplice, rather than his hostage? Or was it a simple case of "kill the messenger"? Mom experienced much the same reaction after blowing the whistle on Antilles…

The briefing area, defined by a dozen or more dark-green folding screens, was not much smaller than that fifth-floor room I knew so well--but was nowhere near as luxurious. The table--no, tables: there were two, pushed close together--were metal, folding jobs, dented and ugly. The dozen or so chairs were a perfect match--for the tables, if not for each other. A rolling stand against the rear "wall" held a computer terminal, the cables snaking out under the screens; while on another, smaller table, near the gap that served as a door, stood a large silver urn, from which emerged the most heavenly scent in the universe, outside of fresh blood. RHIP indeed.

Only a few of the chairs were occupied--along with a wide swath of floor. My father sat near the foot of the table, with Commander Reid beside him; the chairless space to Dad's right was obviously meant for me. Confronting them on the opposite end were Admiral Teeheek and Commander Hammond. The Centaurii head of the shipyard and the Fabrication Center looked terrible, aged and bent, her proud crest collapsed to the left, her feathers shabby and ruffled. The gaze she turned on me was one of undisguised hostility--which, judging from his sudden frown, Dad recognized as well. Hammond looked detached, almost serene, as if he had suddenly discovered Zen--or, more likely, had resigned himself to the hopelessness of his situation. He didn't trouble himself to return my scrutiny.

To Reid's left, one entire side of the table was occupied by a person I had neither seen nor even thought about for days: Admiral Chuulah, the head of the Isaac Haliday project. I'd had no idea he was even still on the planet. He crouched there on his massive haunches, his expression unreadable--but his four blood-drop eyes remained fixed on me as Mazzaro maneuvered my chair into place beside my father.

Dad smiled and squeezed my hand, and pushed over one of the two steaming cups that stood before him. "How are you feeling, son?" he asked softly.

"Pretty good," I said. I raised the cup. "And I'll be better still after this."

Teeheek waited until Mazzaro had departed, then clicked her beak for attention. "Now that we are all present," she said coldly, "perhaps we can begin." She turned to Hammond. "Your report please, Commander?"

The Security Chief (for the moment, anyway) stirred, and glanced down at his palm-reader--but before he could speak, he was interrupted by the kettle-drum tones of Admiral Chuulah. "I must strongly protest the presence of civilians at this meeting," he said, stabbing his tentacles at Dad and me. "They have no business here."

Reid cleared his throat. "They are here on my authority, Admiral," he said. "For which I have the express permission of Admiral Brewer. Quite frankly, I value their opinions far more than those of most of the personnel in this Center."

Grumbling like a spit-clogged tuba, Chuulah subsided, and Teeheek, after a brief, sharp glance at Reid, nodded at Hammond. "Go ahead."

Hammond's voice had entirely lost its arrogance and bluster; what was left was a kind of world-weary sadness. He spoke slowly, as if forcing out each word by an effort of will. "On the whole," he said, "the situation is stable. The majority of the domes have been cleared of their burden of sand, and repairs to the Administration Building have commenced, beginning with the restoration of the structural-rigidity field. At the height of the crisis, approximately twenty-seven percent of the building's habitable spaces were open to the atmosphere; at last report, life-support has been restored to about half the affected areas. There was, however, considerable collateral damage to equipment and personal property, most of which has yet to be inventoried. There is also the matter of the main computer. The damage Mr. Osgood did to the operating system and the password files has been bypassed, but not fully corrected. Our techs believe it may still be necessary to power down the computer and restore its files one by one."

"So when exactly will this facility be operational?" Chuulah demanded.

"Fully operational, perhaps a month, sir," Hammond said tonelessly. "At the moment, almost the entire staff is required merely to maintain life-support and other vital functions."

"Meaning," Reid observed, with just a touch of malice in his tone, "that the shipyard will be deprived of parts and materiel for the duration?"

Hammond nodded, but couldn't hold Reid's gaze. "That is essentially true, Commander," he said. "With the exception of parts already in stock. How that will impact shipyard operations, I have not yet heard."

"…But we may certainly guess," Reid said. He glanced at Teeheek. "If--as seems certain--part of Osgood's plan was to bring Combined Forces ship-building to a virtual standstill, he did an admirable job."

Teeheek didn't bother to reply; what would she have said? She turned instead to Chuulah. "And what is the status of the Haliday project, Admiral?" she asked.

The Quadrian shook his ponderous head. "Dead in the water," he said sourly. "The Admirals believe the project must be shelved until security--and the safety of the civilian contractors--can be guaranteed. If indeed that's even possible."

As he spoke he gazed hard at Reid, and the commander shrugged. "I believe it is," he said. "If a number of fundamental changes are made. As my report will indicate."

"--And," Chuulah went on in aggrieved tones, "I have received word that some of our civilian contractors intend to file suit against the CF in the Alliance courts. The charges include breach of contract--and others too numerous to list. The Legal Department also informs me that we may expect additional suits as a result of the shuttle crash."

Dad cleared his throat. "Is that really so hard to understand, Admiral?" he asked mildly. "They--we--came to Centaurus Minor in good faith, ready to provide our services as we have any number of times before. We expected to be well-paid, of course--but for me at least, money isn't the major reason why I've accepted so many CF contracts." He glanced at me. "In the past they've given me a feeling of accomplishment--even pride. I owe my education as an engineer to the Combined Forces, and after my resignation, I did feel some obligation to repay them for what I'd been given. Mine is a rather special case, I know, and I have no idea whether any of my colleagues feel the same. But after what happened here--" his gaze shifted slowly from Chuulah to Teeheek, and lingered for a significant few seconds on Hammond-- "after the way my son and I were treated…it's going to be a very long time before I feel either that pride or that obligation again. If in fact I ever do."

Chuulah's indignant reply was interrupted by Teeheek. "This is neither the time nor the place for such a debate," she said firmly. She turned. "Do I assume then, Mr. Abrams, that you will be joining the lawsuit?"

"Me?" Dad said in surprise. "No. Why should I? It's pointless. It will get nowhere in the courts--no one has ever successfully sued the CF. And in the end, all they'll accomplish is to get themselves vilified in the press. The Public Information Office will see to that. No; I prefer to remain silent--and remember."

Teeheek's eyes actually widened, just a little. Why, I don't know--unless she was recalling that Dad had CF contacts almost the equal of her own, and wondering what he might do with them.

"I don't intend to waste my time, or the Admiralty's, asking for monetary compensation," Dad said. "I don't even insist on an apology. All I want is one thing: an explanation. How did all of this happen? How, in a secure CF installation, did my son almost lose his life on three separate occasions?"

Chuulah snorted. "As for that," he said, "you need look no farther than him. From what I understand, he has a remarkable talent for getting himself into trouble."

"Granted," Dad said, with an apologetic grin at me. "But only when circumstances make it all but unavoidable. How were events allowed to escalate to that point?"

He gazed challengingly at Teeheek, and she looked away. Finally she said, "Mr. Abrams, much of what you are asking has yet to be determined. And some I am not at liberty to discuss. At this time the most I can say is this: mistakes were made."

I saw Dad's lip curl in contempt, and I knew exactly what he was thinking: The passive infinitive--last bastion of the beleaguered bureaucrat. But before he could reply, Reid laid a hand on his arm. "If I may, Mr. Abrams?" he said. Dad nodded and waved his hand, and the commander went on, "Admiral Teeheek is quite correct: mistakes were indeed made. That much is obvious." He glanced at Hammond. "By, for example, the Security Chief--who believed, even in the face of terrorist threats, that his relatively small force could ensure the safety of a large number of civilian engineers. And again when he placed so much trust in a certain lieutenant." He paused. "Though that, to be honest, was a mistake anyone could have made--even me." He turned to Teeheek. "Mistakes were made when it was decided that Albert Mayer was entirely docile, and need not be heavily guarded." He gazed at Dad. "Mistakes were made when Mr. Edwin Lummis, our resident AIB agent, chose to hide rather than reveal himself, and when Mr. Abrams helped him do so." Dad stirred, but said nothing, and Reid's eyes shifted to me. "Mistakes were made when a certain young Sah'aaran decided to follow up a lead on his own." My claws expressed, and my tail began to lash--but that was shame, not anger, because he was right. His eyes shifted again. "Mistakes were made when Commander Hammond decided to focus his investigation on Mr. Abrams and his son, ignoring other, far more promising evidence. And serious mistakes were made when Lieutenant Stewart decided that his career was more important than the lives of those in this Center." He shook his head sadly. "Yes, mistakes were made. But by far the biggest occurred when complacency was allowed to take hold and grow like a cancer. And for that, we are all to blame. The Alliance is at peace; the Chrysaoans are far away, and for the moment the border is secure. Piracy, smuggling and espionage are relatively under control. And as such, we have begun to believe ourselves invulnerable. It may be that we should be thanking Mr. Osgood rather than condemning him--for teaching us, once again, that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance."

For more than a minute the group sat silent, and on the faces of those assembled I saw a range of emotions--anger, discomfort and hopelessness predominating. Finally Admiral Teeheek spoke--but to Hammond, not Reid.

"Commander," she said flatly, "is the shuttle-launch facility operational?"

He nodded. "Yes, ma'am."

"Excellent," she said. "You will make arrangements immediately for the remaining civilian engineers to leave the planet."

"Yes, Admiral."

She turned. "Mr. Reid, is your work here completed?"

He hesitated. "I believe so, Admiral," he said. "Except for my final report--and that can be composed anywhere."

She nodded. "Very good. You--" her gazed shifted to Dad and me--"and you and your son--have six hours to be out of this Center." She stood. "That is all, gentlemen: this meeting is concluded."

And that was it: no accusations, no endless questioning of my part in the tragedy, no threats or bluster. Not even an entirely academic debate over Osgood's motives and methods. I felt almost cheated. Admiral Teeheek simply walked out, followed by Chuulah and Hammond--and not a one of them gave us so much as a parting glance.

Reid watched his fellow officers depart, his eyes narrowed. Then he turned to my father and me. "It appears," he said dryly, "that we'd best go pack our bags. We seem to have worn out our welcome."

Dad grasped my shoulder. "To be honest, Commander," he replied, "it was a welcome that seemed a bit threadbare to begin with."


As the three of us made our way slowly across the dome, with Dad at the helm of my chair, I jerked a thumb back over my shoulder. "What will happen to them, do you think?" I asked Reid.

The Security man flashed one of his guarded half-smiles. "Admiral Chuulah will get the Haliday project back on track soon enough; of that we may be assured. It's too important to the Survey to remain in limbo for long." He glanced at Dad. "And I don't imagine you need be concerned for your career, Mr. Abrams," he went on. "There will be more CF contracts in your future--if you want them."

Dad nodded serenely. "Oh, I know that already," he said. "As long as I stay away from that half-assed lawsuit. The Admirals will need all the engineers they can get--and they'll pay no attention to Chuulah's grudges. They won't be able to afford to. Besides," he added, and winked, "they know quality when they see it."

"Of course," Reid said. He paused. "As for Admiral Teeheek--she has too many friends, too much influence, for this to have a permanent effect on her career. Although," he went on thoughtfully, "given her age, and her long years of service, it would not surprise me if she were to retire very soon. And Commander Hammond…" he sighed. "He seems content to play the part that has been prepared for him: that of scapegoat. He was not truly responsible for what happened here…"

"Wasn't he?" I asked pointedly, and Reid shook his head.

"Responsible for the complacency that gripped this facility?" he asked. "No. That predated his arrival by some considerable time. He merely allowed himself to buy into it. That is what my report will indicate…"

"…But the Admirals will require a whipping boy," Dad said bitterly. "How well I know that."

"Exactly," Reid agreed. "And for better or worse, Mr. Hammond is elected. Whether he'll attempt to salvage his career, I can't say--still less whether he'll be successful."

I remained silent. I guess there really is too much of my mother in me: I simply could not muster any sympathy for the man who came to my hospital room and practically demanded that I sell out my father--or else. And though I'm sure it was petty of me, I couldn't help but feel a grim satisfaction that he was going down. That, however, was a feeling best kept to myself.

"And you, Commander?" I asked, and Reid shrugged.

"I will go wherever my masters tell me to," he said--and somehow, by the tone of his voice maybe, he made that rootless existence sound terribly romantic and exciting. "I never know where I'll be, day to day--even sometimes hour to hour."

We heard a shout behind us then, and turned, to see Lieutenant Mazzaro dashing across the dome from the direction of the command center. Panting a little, he turned to Reid. "Message for you, sir," he said, handing over a data card. "From Admiral Brewer."

"Thank you, Lieutenant," Reid said. He slipped the card into his reader, and stared for a moment at the little screen--and as he did, his eyes slowly widened, one of the most overt displays of emotion I'd seen from him yet. Wordlessly he handed the reader to my father. Dad accepted it with a puzzled frown--and as he read whatever it was the screen contained, his face suddenly went dead white.

"What is it?" I asked.

Dad couldn't reply; or at very least, couldn't find the words. "There has been some… difficulty at the conference on Quadria," Reid told me quietly. "The one your mother and sister are attending."

My claws, long overdue for tending, expressed. "What kind of 'difficulty'?"

"Demonstrations," Reid said. "Which have escalated into riots. Outside provocateurs are suspected--the PPS and the Sah'challa Consortium may both be involved."

"According to this," Dad said harshly, "it's the worst uprising Quadria has seen since the Equality Riots more than a century ago."

Reid nodded. "The Marines have been called in--but it may take some time for even them to restore order. And…"

He trailed off, as if unwilling or unable to continue--but somehow, from the look in his eyes, I was able to read his mind as clearly as if he'd shouted his thought into my ear. "Antilles," I said.

"Yes," Reid confirmed. "A man answering his description--or his presumed description, after all these years--was seen recently in Quadria's capital city."

I tried, with limited success, to swallow my rapidly-rising terror. "My mother and sister--are they all right?"

Reid shook his head. "We don't know for certain," he said. "It appears that they--and the other delegates--are trapped in the conference center."

My heart hammering, I half-rose. "We've got to get to Quadria," I announced. "Commander, can you help us get a ship--?"

Gently but firmly, Dad pushed me back down into the chair. "No," he said. "He can't. The only place you're going is home, and to bed--and I'm going with you."

Aghast, I stared up at him. "But…"

"Your father is correct," Reid said. "Quadria is far away; even if you could manage to arrive before the situation is resolved, it's extremely doubtful you'd be allowed to land. All of the planet's spaceports are locked down for the duration. And even if you were--what would you accomplish, except to be in the way? There truly is nothing you can do."

In agony, I writhed in my chair, my claws digging into its arms. Dad gripped my shoulders; to reassure me, I guess--but his hands were shaking.

"I don't like it either," he said. He stared up at the distant ceiling, his jaw set in a grim line. "But we don't have much choice. We'll just have to hope Ehm'ayla is still as resourceful as she's always been."