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And after Honesty?

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Part I

Scorpius recognized her at once. In the cycle since he'd seen her, her hair had grown
longer. She was wearing brown now and had slightly altered her facial appearance, but the oval of
her face was the same. As he met her eyes from across the tavern, several impressions fired
through his head--

She looked Kalish again, the Peacekeeper overlay scrubbed away.

She was a traitor.

He deeply desired to snap her bones in his hands.

She was still beautiful--it was troubling that that seemed significant.

Why would she be looking for him? He had no doubt that she was looking for him.
The odds were astronomically against her being here on this commerce planet in this tavern
purely by coincidence. She showed no surprise when he looked at her. Indeed, she had been
watching him first, sitting at a table in plain view. She had meant to get his attention. Why?
What could she possibly think she could have to say that he would listen to? Or was she simply
put in place as a decoy to distract him from a trap?

That explanation appeared all too likely. He must keep doubly alert--to her and to
everything else around him. But he had waited a long time to make contact with his agent here.
If Sikozu had found him, she might well already know that. And it was not worth changing his
plans to hide information she already knew.

He turned away from her and moved to the Charrid at the bar. The Charrid passed him
the data chip on Motak 4 with sufficient dexterity that a casual viewer would almost surely have
missed the transaction. He must presume, however, that Sikozu had seen it, had probably been
waiting for it. Well, the next move would be hers. If she wanted something from him, she would
have to come and get him. He exchanged a few diversionary words with his contact and made his
way to the door as he had planned, scanning it for possible traps.

There were none. Out on the street, he walked toward his hotel. There was little point in
disguising the direction when it was likely she knew where it was as well. When he had gone
only a few paces, he heard familiar footsteps padding behind him.

***

It would not work. The thought struck Sikozu like a slug in the chest the moment he
entered the tavern. He would not hear her out, would not believe her even if he did, would not
agree to anything she might propose. Why had she volunteered for this mission? They should
have sent any other Kalish operative before they agreed to send her.

But, of course, she knew why she had volunteered. And it had very little to do with the
Kalish Resistance.

But it should. The Resistance should come first. Her priorities were backward. They
had been better before.

When his eyes locked on her icily, she felt a stab of fear.

But she was here; she could not back down now. When he walked out of the tavern, she
fought the urge to race after him and demand that he let her explain. After all, this district, with
eyes everywhere, was no place for an overwrought display. She got up as casually as she could
and followed him at a discreet distance.

After trailing him for several blocks, she lost him for a moment around a corner.
Rounding the bend, she still didn't see him. There was a large recycling dumpster--and in the
microt it took her to register the obvious, his hand flashed out from behind it. Seizing her wrist,
he flattened her against the wall.

Quietly, he said, "Your aptitude for espionage has deteriorated since our last meeting."

She could feel her bones grind where he held her wrist, her hand already hot and limp from
lack of circulation. He was leaning against her heavily enough to make breathing difficult.

"It is not as if I didn't know you knew I was there," she answered. Inhaling laboriously,
she added, "I need to talk to you."

"Surely, we have said all that needs to be said."

"I have a proposal from certain Kalish." She would not name the Resistance in the street.

"You are a Scarran agent."

She drew in another slow breath. "I am a Kalish agent. I was a Kalish agent then."
Another breath. "You did not give me a chance to explain."

"If you had wanted the leisure to explain, perhaps you should not have brought a Scarran
attack down on our heads."

She was starting to feel lightheaded. "Let me explain now."

Abruptly, he wrenched her away from the wall. Still grasping her wrist, he marched her
down the street, as if he were afraid that she would try to escape. As if she had not been the one
tracking him!

After traveling several more blocks and down two levels, they came to dilapidated hotel.
He keyed in a code on one of the doors and pushed her into a cramped room, locking the door
behind them. She flexed her hand to get the blood flowing; her wrist was bruising a deep yellow.

For some microts, they stood on opposite sides of the small space, not quite facing one
another.

"If you have something to say, say it," Scorpius growled.

Sikozu tried to remember what she had planned to say but could only summon up
approximate fragments. "You were wrong about me," she began.

He narrowed his eyes as if about to retort but said nothing.

Sikozu went on, "You. . . misunderstood my. . . situation." What had happened to all
those perfectly chosen words she had practiced for this moment?

In an unsettlingly calm voice, he put in, "You did confess to spying for them."

"Yes, I was spying for the Scarrans," Sikozu admitted, striving to keep her voice as calm
as his. "That is, I was aware that they were tracking my movements with the coms you. . . found
implanted in my back. But you must understand how. . . recent a development that was." She
sighed. Her wrist was throbbing. "It began less than a monen before you found out. I was on
that reconnaissance mission to Edrasska. The Scarrans captured me. They told me that they had
discovered the use of bioloids in the Kalish Resistance. They demonstrated that they had
developed means for recognizing bioloid energy signatures. Using this technology, they had been
able to uncover most of our major networks. They were on the point of launching a purge against
us when they found me. When they discovered that I had access to the Peacekeepers, they
agreed to preempt the purge in exchange for my services as a spy."

He retorted roughly, "That is not consistent with your previous explanation."

Sikozu was taken aback. "Of course, it is!" Had she not told him that the Scarrans had
promised to spare her people?

"You told me that they agreed to free your people from their servitude."

Had she said that? It seemed to her now that she might have. What an absurd thing to
say! "They told me both," she stammered. "First that they would free the Kalish. I did not
believe them. Then, they told me they would preempt the purge, which I did believe--because if
they moved against my people, they would have no more hold over me."

"And you chose to give me the explanation you yourself did not believe?"

Sikozu's face was flushing. This was a nightmare. "I evidently do not remember
precisely what I said to you. I think perhaps that is understandable since my universe was
falling to pieces." She had done her best to blank out those days of being a Scarran pawn; that
had been foolish. Now, she took a steadying breath and endeavored to place herself back in that
time. "I believe that by the time you discovered the coms, I had begun to. . . comfort myself by
supposing that the Scarrans might actually keep their promise to set us free. When you
confronted me, that must have been foremost in my mind."

He eyed her coldly.

No. If she were Scorpius, she would not believe it either. Not after this debacle.

"It is the truth," she said. "If it sounds inconsistent, even a sophisticated mind is not
always consistent."

"So you offered your services. With the greatest reluctance."

She was gripped by a sudden urge to seize him and shake him, as if that could make him
understand. Instead, she crossed to his side of the room and stared up into his face. "It was
agony," she answered, "every microt."

"Yet once they released you, it never occurred to you to indicate your situation to anyone
on the Command Carrier."

"Scorpius, I could not. They made it clear that if I showed the slightest sign of
disobedience, my people would pay the price. The coms they implanted in me was tracking my
actions as much as it was tracking my location. It contained audio, visual, even tactile
transmission. I could not talk to you because they would hear me. I could not write you or
signal you because they would see me. Do you understand? I was being watched all the time."
She drew in closer and laid her hands on his arms, comforted by the familiar feel of his muscles
underneath his coolant suit. "I need you to believe me."

"Why?"

"Because. . . ." Because we were meant to be together? When Aeryn had suggested
that to her, she had found the concept ridiculous. Meant by whom? For what purpose? And at
the same time, she had understood.

He was still staring at her, waiting.

"Because I am sick and tired of everyone around me assuming that I am contemptible."
Well, that was true as far as it went. "Please, try to listen to me." She rested her hand against his
neck, hoping to get something back of their old sense of intimacy.

***

Her eyes were too bright, her face too immobile. He did not think he had ever despised a
non-Scarran face so much. But that she dared to lay her hands on him--that was beyond
endurance. It suggested a facile belief that she could seduce him into giving her his trust again,
despite the singular ineptitude of the lies she had just insulted him with. Instead, her touch
aroused fury shot through desire. For an instant, he imagined holding her down and raping her
with deep satisfaction.

The idea left him feeling sick. He batted her hand away and moved to the other side of
the room, suddenly aware that his face was streaming with sweat.

"Get out of my sight," he demanded.

Sikozu's voice came stridently from behind him. "I did what I needed to do." A pause.
More quietly: "I tried to tell you. Do you remember that time--we were sitting in your quarters,
and I looked into your eyes, and I said I wished never to lie to you?"

Yes, he remembered. He had remembered on that day when he had realized that it had all
been lies.

"And then I said that I never would lie to you?" she continued. "The first was true and
the second a lie. I was hoping you would read the change in my energy signature and understand
that I needed to tell you something that I could not say. But you did not notice."

Suddenly, he found himself reevaluating her story.

He remembered that conversation clearly. It had struck him at the time that her locution
had been unusual. But because her energy signature had not significantly altered, he had put it
down to a surge of sentimental emotion. All his life, he had instructed himself not to rely too
heavily on his ability to use energy signatures to distinguish truth from lies. Yet he had done just
that.

A cycle ago, when he had discovered her treachery, the realization that she could lie to
him without an energetic shift had been unsettling. But more unsettling had been the reflection
that he had lived side by side with her for monens and never suspected her of deception.

And now, she asked him to believe her. And, indeed, it was true that in the days
following the Scarran-Peacekeeper treaty, the Scarrans had launched a major assault against the
Kalish Resistance, one that had crippled it for some time. But that alone did not mean that all
she said was the truth.

He turned to face her and said, "If we were on the Command Carrier, I could verify your
story by putting you in the Aurora Chair."

If it worked on bioloids.

"We are not on the Command Carrier," Sikozu replied with a familiar flicker of impatience
in her voice. "And since you no longer work among the Peacekeepers, it does not seem we are
likely to be."

"True," said Scorpius. "Therefore, we will have to make do with more primitive methods
of verification." Before she had time to process that statement, he crossed to her and twisted her
arms behind her back. She winced but made no attempt to fight him. Then, he wrestled a piece
of cord off the room's dingy curtains and, pushing her to her knees at the foot of the bed, secured
her arms to the bed frame so that her wrists were tied up next to her shoulders.

"You must think very little of your own judgment if you think this is necessary," she
spat.

That statement was discomfortingly accurate. But as there was nothing meaningful he
could say in response, he offered no reply.

Instead, he took a stylus from his supplies and applied its point to her throat till she
winced.

"Now," he said, "tell me where precisely on Edrasska you were captured."

"Is this necessary?" she repeated.

"It is. Edrasska."

"The northern space port. Customs."

He shifted the pressure on her throat slightly. "What was your first indication that your
mission had been compromised?"

And as they began the questions and answers, he could feel his calm return.

The principle was simple. Anyone could and would lie under torture, but few could
maintain an internally consistent account of a complex set of fabricated events. The technique
was to keep the questions detailed and concrete, to repeat the same questions in slightly different
forms at unexpected intervals, and, in general, slowly to scale up the pain until suspicious
inconsistencies appeared or until the subject became incoherent.

Sikozu, when he had met her, had not been particularly adept at managing pain. She had
even had a tendency to panic when faced with significant injury. But she had improved
precociously. Even before they had left Moya, she had become an intrepid fighter. Now, he felt
a flush of pride to see her coherence under duress. Indeed, she retained such an appearance of
composure that he was uncertain if the consistency of her responses was a sign of truth or of
expert lying. He would need to break down that composure if he were to assess her veracity
with any reliability.

It occurred to him that her limbs were re-attachable.

When he bit off her index finger, she cried out—but not nearly as loudly as she would
have two cycles ago. The taste of her blood brought back their time together, times when she
would come in from a battle covered with abrasions and he'd lick her wounds clean.

He laid her finger on the floor and asked, "Tell me again, when Minister Ahkna came to
your cell for the second time, what did she tell you about Katratzi?"

"Frell you!" she gasped. "I told you it was the third time. She told me the attack on
Katratzi had alerted the Scarrans to the presence of bioloids in the Resistance."

Yes, she was impressive.

But by the time he had severed her third finger, she had ceased to respond to his
questions and was merely hurling invective in Scarran. He would get no more out of her for the
present--and in any case, he was now reasonably certain that her story was true. He rummaged
in his first aid supplies and found tape to bind her fingers. When he had bandaged them, he
untied her wrists, noting that her hands were an unhealthy yellow-brown. If lack of circulation
had caused nerve damage, she would have to seek medical care; his first aid supplies were
inadequate for such repair.

As soon as her arms were free, she flopped onto her side, breathing raggedly and
trembling.

"We will take an interval," he told her.

"You rescradettat!" she shot back. "I will not take an interval. I am done with this
game."

Scorpius all at once felt tired. No, there was no more point to this. He settled himself
with his back against the far wall, legs stretched out in front of him, and watched her.

After some time, her breathing steadied. Though she continued to shake, she pushed
herself upright with her uninjured hand.

"Do you believe me now?" she asked.

He answered carefully, "To an extent."

"You lied too," she said bitterly. "I know you lied when you said you had only been
using me to service your desires. You lied when you said you'd known my duplicity from the
beginning--because in the beginning, there was nothing to know." She was breathless again,
slowly flexing her hands.

"It does not follow that, therefore, I was not merely using you."

"You were not," she said and glanced at the door. "Let me out."

"We have not yet concluded our business. You said you had a proposal from. . . certain
Kalish."

"If you think that--" She stopped and stared at him a long moment. "I am not
sufficiently. . . collected to conduct that business now. I know you are not scheduled to depart
for two solar days. I will meet you back here in thirty arns."

"I am not prepared to take you word for that."

"Then to what extent do you believe me?" she demanded.

He answered truthfully, "I believe you were coerced by the Scarrans on Edrasska. I am
not satisfied that you are no longer compromised by them."

She staggered up and sat on the end of the bed. "I will not submit to further
interrogation."

It came to him that he did not wish to submit her to it either. "Will you submit to a
transmitter?"

"That is my alternative?"

He pulled himself up and searched in his supplies. "A simple neural audio-only." He
held out the chip to her.

She took it in her uninjured hand and inspected it as minutely as the naked eye would
allow. "If that is my alternative," she said finally.

They exchanged not another word as he injected it into her brain and unlocked the door.
When she was gone, he implanted the receiver in his ear and lay back on his bed, half wishing he
did not have to hear the rough sound of her breathing as she stomped away.

***

Sikozu's first objective was not to faint in the street, not to stagger, not to look weak
enough to invite attack. She hurt in more places than she could count. Her hands were worst,
stinging acidly, her three bandaged fingers hot and fat and useless. It had been a long time since
she'd been so angry, but she could not let anger blind her now, not out in the middle of a
commerce planet thoroughfare, not till she was--at least nominally--safe in her transport pod.

It took forever to get there. Her legs were knocking dangerously by the time she reached
the pod. And once she was there, she had to override the palm lock because it was keyed to her
mangled hand. It took at least forty microts to enter all the key commands--and then she was
inside, the door locked behind her. She curled up in a ball on her cot.

That frelling, stupid, implacable. . .

She was asleep before she could finish the thought.

A tearing pain exploded in her fingers. She jerked awake and rolled off of the injured hand
that had somehow ended up mashed under her chest. The fingers, at least, had not pulled free of
their attachments. The bandages were holding, and she could feel the all-too-familiar burning of
her tissues reconnecting.

Checking her internal chronometer, she noted that she'd been asleep for three arns. Her
body was still lethargic but her mind now wide-awake.

The worst part was that she was angrier at herself than she was at Scorpius. She
shouldn't have come. She had hoped that things would go better but had known that,
realistically, they would not. She had prepared herself for the possibility that he would kill her.
Barring that, he had reacted about as one might expect.

Of course, he would not trust her. Of course, he would be furious. It was not her
fault--and yet it was, all the same. She had helped the Scarrans. It didn't matter why. To him,
that was the one unforgivable crime.

He was such a single-minded infant! He could not be reasoned with, not about this. She
had been an idiot to come. And to think that not so long ago, she had been certain that an idiot
was the one thing she was not.

A wave of self-pity swept over her, tears pricking at her eyes. But she would not cry,
not with him listening. He had never yet seen her cry; he would not hear her now.

He would think it was a ruse. She smiled grimly at the thought.

If she had any sense, she would leave this planet now, go back to her Resistance node and
get this transmitter pulled out of her brain. They could send someone else to solicit his
partnership with the Resistance. He would say "yes" to someone else. He would recognize the
Resistance as a useful ally--just not Sikozu. Not ever again.

***

For two arns, he lay on his bed, listening to her breathing somewhere many blocks away.
The slow rhythm of her sleeping breaths was too evocative. He could almost imagine her lying
within arm's reach.

He was drained. She drained him. The situation was a farce.

If he had been functioning rationally, he would have refused to speak with her--better
still, he'd have killed her. Better still, he'd have killed her when he'd first grasped her betrayal.

When she had followed him into the street and demanded that he let her explain, it had
seemed imperative to establish the authenticity of her story. At some point, however, he had
realized that her account was largely irrelevant. She hated the Scarrans; he had never doubted
that. She had betrayed him in an attempt to spare her people; that too, he had never doubted.
The fact remained that she could not be trusted. She had proven that she would and could lie to
him, even betray all his work to his enemies.

And she had a proposition from the Resistance.

Perhaps. But how could he tell if the proposition was genuine? He could interrogate her
again, but that notion was fatiguing.

He made himself rise, lowered the ambient temperature of his room. He did not like to
accustom himself to temperatures colder than the norm of his environment, but just now, he had
need of all his energy reserves. Dutifully, he ate and drank--and, less dutifully, considered
departing the commerce planet early, preempting a further encounter with her. He had got as far
as drawing tentative plans to cancel his meeting with his contacts tomorrow, when it came to him
that the only explanation for such a course of action was cowardice.

It almost defied belief that he had actually contemplated fleeing from Sikozu. He would
not, of course. He would stay and hear her. Even if she lied, he might learn something of value.
If he could parse out the lies from the truth.

***

By the next day, the swelling in Sikozu's fingers had gone down, though they still felt
unequal to performing most tasks. In a few arns, she would meet with him, and he would
demand verification of everything she said, and the data chip she had been given to present to him
would not be sufficient. And he would want to interrogate her again.

She needed some way to defend herself. She considered taking a pulse pistol but quickly
dismissed the idea. His armor would repulse most shots. To be sure of incapacitating him, she
would have to aim for his face, and that would kill him. Besides, he would surely recognize the
sound of her loading her pistol and be prepared, and shoot her first.

She could generate her radiation, as long as she kept her hands free to direct it. But the
radiation was designed to kill Scarrans, and as he was half-Scarran, she might easily kill him when
she meant only weaken him.

None of it would inspire him to give her the trust that she longed to win back.

She looked at her bandaged hand and almost winced aloud at the thought of those fingers
being wrenched off again--or of losing all her fingers this time. But if that was what it took. . .

***

As their meeting approached, Scorpius could hear a noise, like stone being filed, from the
transmitter. A weapon? When she tapped at his door, he was primed to shoot her at the
slightest provocation. But when he let her in, he saw from the set of her jaw that the sound was
the gnashing of her teeth.

Without preamble, she said, "My companions in the Resistance wish to negotiate an
alliance with your network. We wish to pool our information, with the possible aim of
conducting operations together in the future."

That was more vague than he had expected but essentially the only thing she could have
said. And there was a possibility that it was true. . .

For the moment, he chose to say nothing.

Sikozu went on, "I have a data chip, which contains good faith information on several
Scarran projects." She produced a chip, which he took from her. "I have also been authorized to
share names and contact information for three of my colleagues posted near your sector."

"You appear already to know a great deal about my movements," he observed.

Sikozu smiled at him briefly. "Scorpius, you do not blend into a crowd."

That was a problem. Most of his career had been conducted among the Peacekeepers,
where he could play his conspicuous appearance to his advantage. But now, Peacekeeper
interests no longer served his: since the treaty, they had ceased to combat Scarran power. Now,
he must often perform undercover work himself. That, however, was a temporary setback; as
soon as he had accumulated enough liaisons, he would retire to a more administrative role.

"Give me the contact information," he said.

She provided it, then hesitated. "Next you will tell me you wish to verify it," she added
with something like a sneer.

"I will verify it independently," he replied.

She bit her lip. "That may be difficult for your network. My colleagues keep their
identities well hidden."

"We have our resources."

She inclined her head. "That is why we wish to work with you."

For several microts they stared at each other in silence.

"If I am satisfied of the authenticity of your offer, I will contact your associates," he said
finally.

After a moment, Sikozu said, "Will you remove this transmitter?"

He got out his implanter and took her jaw firmly in his hand. She stiffened and held
rigidly still, only gasping slightly as he extracted the implant from her brain. When he let her go,
she backed away quickly.

"I will verify that it is gone when I rejoin my people," she said.

For a moment more, Scorpius studied her face. In all but the most minute particulars, it
was just as he remembered. It was difficult to believe it had been a cycle since he had seen it,
difficult to believe that within a few microts, she would be gone and--with luck--he would never
see it again.

"They should have sent someone else," she said.

"Indeed."

She turned to go. When she reached the door, she looked back and said, "I volunteered
because I needed you. . . I needed you to know the truth."

She did not understand that the truth made no difference.

"You may go," he told her. And she left.

***

When Sikozu returned to her transport pod, she sat on her cot and let the tears come,
wondering if he had removed the transmitter at all, if he could hear her hiccuping now like a child.
She wondered whether, if he could hear, he would think better of her. Or worse?

She wished he could put her into the Aurora Chair. Then maybe he would understand
how little she had meant to betray him. But he would never understand.

Part II

[a cycle later]

Prudence dictated that it would be wisest for Scorpius to land his transport pod at a
random location within Motak 4's agricultural belt. He chose not to do so. The risks having been
assessed, he landed just out of sight of his mother's life pod. He would not repeat the mistake of
entering it. Yet as long as he was here on this planet, he would allow himself the indulgence of
looking at it again.

In his mother's time, the planet had been insignificant. Its only relevance for the Scarrans
had always been its ability to support the Chrystherium flowers they needed to maintain their
higher cognitive functions. But it had been so close to Peacekeeper space that the Scarrans had
avoided developing it, lest their movements betray the importance of the flowers. Under the
terms of the treaty, the planet fell within Scarran borders. Peacekeeper prying was a negligible
threat: the Peacekeepers cravenly refused to pursue any espionage that might exasperate the
Scarrans. And in the wake of the destruction of the Chrystherium mother plant on Katratzi,
Motak 4 had become an attractive site for agricultural development.

But it had not been extensively planted out yet. And with the Scarrans stationed here
still few, now was the time to sabotage their efforts.

In cycles past, Scorpius had studied the planet extensively. That made him an apt choice
to oversee the toxification of the soil. But as he himself could not easily infiltrate the developed
zones without being recognized, the infiltration would be the task of another operative, who
should arrive in sixteen arns.

In the meantime, he hid his pod under electromagnetic reflectors, scanned the area, and,
satisfied that his position was secure, walked out toward his mother's pod. The sun had set, and
the fields rolled blue in the light of a gibbous moon. Her pod loomed silhouetted on the horizon,
less prominent than he remembered, probably due to subsidence into the soil. He stopped at the
ridge of a low hill, a position from which he could see both his pod and hers. There he sat and
activated a small infrared reflector, which ought to keep his heat signature off the scanners of all
but the most low-flying ships. The reflector crackling softly, he lay down and pushed the tall
grass back so that he could gaze at her pod.

It had been thirty-five cycles since last he had been here, driven by the need to see the
place where she'd lost her freedom. He had only got a glimpse inside before Tauza had captured
him. Now he knew that there was nothing the pod could tell him. Tauza had taught him all he
needed to know of his parents.

Very long ago, so long that the memories of that time flashed erratically out of the gray of
forgotten childhood, Scorpius had cared about Tauza, in that needy way in which a child cares.
He had wanted her to be proud of him. And then, he had discovered that all she said was based
on lies.

He looked at his mother's life pod and thought of Tauza and all the Scarrans, who had
robbed his mother of what should have been a harmless, agrarian life in this place. The
Peacekeepers' treaty with them was strategically necessary, but it did nothing to correct the
Scarrans' brutality. All the slaves in their domain were as tormented as before.

A ship wooshed overhead, cruising low. Lying still, he watched it circle and land to the
south of his own pod. He waited, reviewing the devices he had brought from his ship and their
applications as weaponry. After half an arn, the transceiver in his ear began to beep out the code
that notified him of his contact's arrival. Fifteen arns early--a suspicious sign. He had been told
that his contact would come straight from a previous assignment and, if anything, might be late.
He did not send the response code. Instead, attaching his infrared reflector to his belt, he rose
and made his way toward the ship, the code signal steadily increasing in intensity.

In the glow of its landing lights, he could identify the ship as a small planet-hopper: the
type he had been told to expect--but that, too, could be part of a trap. Taking shelter behind an
outcropping of rock, he charged his pulse pistol and sent the response signal. For perhaps a
quarter of an arn, the two signals beeped back and forth at each other. Then, his contact's signal
began to grow louder. Soon after, he could make out a swishing in the field. He aimed his pistol
in its direction.

A voice called out the verbal recognition code. It was the correct code, Scorpius noted in
passing, but it was the voice that arrested him. For a microt, he considered firing, then dismissed
the idea as precipitous and called out his response code instead. Even in the moonlight, he could
instantly recognize the form of Sikozu as she stood up in the grass.

***

This time it would be different. Sikozu Shanu did not--would not--accept defeat. She
would prevent the Scarrans from exploiting Motak 4; she would see them pay for enslaving her
people. And she would make herself worthy again in Scorpius' eyes.

But no sooner did she see him stand up in the gloom than she found herself doubting
again.

No. There was no place for doubt.

He was walking toward her.

"Switch off your landing lights," he said shortly as he passed her.

She followed him back toward her ship. She had kept the lights on so he could scout out
her position, but now, he was right; they were safer in the dark. After she had locked down her
ship, they stood silent on her flight deck for some microts.

"I will scan the area," Sikozu began. "If there is no sign that we have been intercepted in
the next four arns, we should relocate to a less conspicuous position." She found it curious that
the rendezvous point he had chosen was so near to his mother's life pod, exactly where the
Scarrans would look, if they had reason to look for him at all, which hopefully they did not.

And yet, in a way, she understood his decision.

He was watching her. "Your associates--whether they are the Kalish or the Scarrans--
have displayed poor tactical sense in assigning you to me."

That was anger, not reason talking.

"You think they know what is between us?" she replied.

"Assuredly, the Scarrans do; your coms gave them a most thorough account."

She felt a stab of shame. She had betrayed more than military tactics when she allowed
the Scarrans to observe her every move.

"Surely, that indicates that it is the Kalish who sent me."

"The Kalish Resistance would be a poor spy network if it had failed to piece together
your treachery."

"True," she said, "yet they took me back."

He studied her a moment. "It would seem so," he said finally. The contacts she had put
him in touch with a cycle ago, at least, should serve as evidence that she still worked for the
Kalish. She was relieved to see that he made no attempt to argue that.

After a moment, he sat down and said, "You are fifteen arns early."

"You are earlier still." She took a seat on the other side of the small flight deck from him.
When he made no reply, she added, "I wished to have additional time to scout the area. I do not
believe that is unreasonable."

"I was told my contact must complete a previous assignment and would not arrive ahead
of schedule."

No wonder he was suspicious. "I called in a substitute to finish that assignment so that I
would not be late." It was all going wrong again! She had pulled out on an assignment to work
with him, and now he would trust her less for it.

"Why you?" he demanded.

"I am the nearest thing the Resistance has to an expert of Motak 4."

"An interesting coincidence."

"It is not a coincidence at all," she answered, her throat suddenly tight.

From the way his eyes bored into her, she wondered if he had misunderstood: did he
think she meant that she had studied this planet to use the knowledge against him? To
compromise him?

"I am not your enemy," she told him.

"You," he replied hotly, "are an encumbrance. The question is not whether you
disapprove of Scarran domination. The question is what you are prepared to do about it. And
by your actions, you demonstrate yourself to be that most dangerous of liabilities: an adept
performer with catastrophically poor judgment."

That was among more hurtful things he had ever said to her. Hurtful--and unfair as well.

"You do not understand," she shot back. "If I had not done what I did, the Scarrans
would have killed thousands of bioloids and thousands of natural-born Kalish. They would have
gutted one of the most powerful resistance efforts ever to be mounted against them."

"And you served them," said Scorpius, "to preempt the purge you had been warned of."

"Yes!"

"But if while you were implanted with their coms, you could not alert me to this
situation, then, by the same token, you could not alert the Resistance, which presumably,
therefore, remained ignorant of its danger."

"Yes--"

"In which case, I fail to see how your betrayal of the Peacekeepers could accomplish
anything for the Resistance apart from postponing its obliteration."

Sikozu had spent hundreds of arns grappling with that very problem. "I was buying
time!" she said. "I was hoping that the Resistance would discover some sign of their danger."

Scorpius smiled at that, the first smile he had given her since casting her off. "As
strategies go, hoping for the best is hardly worthy of a spy of your acumen."

She knew there was a compliment buried in that, but the insult shown out plainer.

"So you say," she retorted, "but it worked. Why do you think the Resistance still
exists at all today? Between the time that I agreed to work with the Scarrans and time that you
discovered it, my people did begin to suspect their danger. When the Scarrans struck, almost
forty-five percent were able to evade capture."

"Fortuitous," he said simply.

"Tell that to the Kalish who are still alive."

"And while you were passively gambling that your people were astute enough to survive,
you very nearly handed Crichton over to the Scarrans!"

She knew it was true. The words were like a knife she turned on herself. "It was all that I
could think to do. If I could have asked for your advice, I would have." She'd longed to. "Do
you have advice to give me now? If my planning was so stupid, then illustrate the virtuosity of
your brain and tell me what I should have done."

"You should have let the Scarrans destroy the Resistance," he answered without
hesitation.

That made Sikozu boil. She rose from her seat and came to stand over him. "You can
sit there and tell me that I had an obligation to send thousands--perhaps millions--of my people
to their deaths before I lied to you!"

"Don't be a fool," he snapped. "That your actions involved lying to me is purely
incidental. Moreover, your hypocrisy is exceptional to suggest that I lack a sense of proportion
when, for the lives of some millions of enslaved Kalish, you would have sold the freedom of half
the galaxy!"

"That is not fair." Nor was it an entirely new thought for Sikozu.

"Is it not?" he said more quietly. "And what if a few shots had been fired differently and
the Scarrans had captured Crichton before he could return to Moya? And what if they had
tortured out of him the secret of wormhole weapons? All because you led them to him?"

"It was never my intention to lead them to Crichton. I did not even know he was alive for
most of the time I was their spy. I thought they would merely be learning about Peacekeeper
movements."

"'Merely' that?"

Sikozu sighed and began to pace. "Yes! That is bad enough. But it could have been
survived. There was much about Peacekeeper tactics I did not have access to, nor did I strive to."

"And when I told you that Crichton was alive?"

"I do not know! It happened too fast." She stopped, unable to look at him. Slowly, she
admitted, "I used to think I was. . . more resourceful."

"As did I," he answered.

Now, she glared at him. "But I will not fail here."

He answered with a silence more condemnatory than speech.

***

In the planet-hopper just outside the coordination station, Scorpius waited for Sikozu to
return. He was unable to follow her progress: Scarran scanners made transmitters too great a risk.

When she was an arn overdue, he began to seriously consider the possibility that she was
laying a trap. There were other possibilities too. Her guise as a technical aide might have been
exposed. She might have been captured before she could seed the toxin into the fertilization
distributor—but she'd been implanted with a distress signal to activate in need. She had not
signaled. Then again, she might merely be delayed; such delays were not uncommon.

He waited.

When she was an arn and a half overdue, he determined to search for her. If he'd had
greater trust in her, he would have waited longer. His appearance would make it difficult for him
to infiltrate the station. For that reason, they had determined that he should come to her aid only
as a last resort.

But if she had betrayed him again, every moment he remained in this ship increased his
danger. She might be long gone and guards alerted to seize him. Or she might be in trouble and
unable to activate the distress signal. The best option for addressing all the eventualities was to
make a personal investigation without delay.

Packing an extra measure of the toxin, he exited the ship. The twilight, along with his
infrared reflector, should help conceal his approach. The station should not be heavily guarded.
Scorpius made his way to the maintenance entrance for the refrigeration chamber, which was used
to refine certain compounds for fertilizer. The Scarrans were likely to avoid it on account of the
cold. The access codes his network had intercepted opened the door. The cold air poured out in
an invigorating rush.

He had memorized where the fertilizer distributor was housed. Still, to approach it
without being seen took fully half an arn: he must not only to avoid security details but blank out
the cameras he passed as well so that there would be no record of his presence.

When he reached the distribution room, the door was open. He could see Sikozu tinkering
with the distributor. But she was not dispersing the toxin through it. He watched her narrowly
for some microts, striving to discern her precise actions. So intently was he watching her that the
footfalls behind him startled him. He whipped around abruptly to see a low caste Scarran
approaching, hand raised to deploy its heat probe. Scorpius fired his pulse pistol directly into
the Scarran's eyes, which would blind it if not kill it.

The Scarran squawked. Sikozu appeared at the door. Ignoring her, Scorpius fell upon the
Scarran and fired his pistol at it again, point blank through the eye into the brain. Then, Sikozu
was there, helping him drag the body into the distribution chamber. She palmed shut the door.

"What the frell are you doing here?" she demanded.

"Attempting to ascertain why you were delayed," he said shortly, accessing a surveillance
monitor to assess whether the scuffle in the hall had raised an alarm.

"The distributor is broken," said Sikozu. "I was fixing it, but now I suspect I will not
have time to do so before the Scarrans are alerted to that guard's absence." She hesitated. "Have
they been alerted?"

There was no sign of an alarm. "It would appear not yet."

"They did not see you?"

"I blanked out the cameras I passed."

She sighed and turned back to her work. "It will take me at least another two arns to fix
this machine."

He knelt by the distributor. "I will assist you."

Sikozu shook her head. "The scrambled conduit regulators are all located in one
processor. There is not room for two people to work on it at once."

"We do not have two arns," he growled.

"Brilliant observation."

There had to be another way. He poured over their situation, searching for possibilities.

After far too many microts, an idea came. "If the malfunction is localized around the
conduit regulators, then the main distributing engine is still functional?"

"Yes," Sikozu answered, "but without the conduit regulators, the toxin will not be
proportionally delivered to all the plants."

"But if we can inject the toxin into the main engine, it will be distributed through the
planetary substations nonetheless."

"In comparatively unregulated quantities," Sikozu cautioned.

Not all the plants would be destroyed. But their population should be decimated.

"Then, I suggest we activate the engine and inject the toxin."

Sikozu crossed to the access hatch for the main engine and opened it, revealing a large hole
in the floor. "We will have to inject the toxin first, then activate the engine."

"Unacceptable," said Scorpius, coming to her side. "If this compound is allowed to settle,
it will solidify before it can be distributed." As he spoke, however, he perceived the difficulty.
The body of the engine was buried in a cylindrical hole. It was designed to be accessible only to
special maintenance equipment, which did not appear to be stored in this room.

"You will have to climb down the wall to it," he told Sikozu.

"Not while it is active," Sikozu replied. "The forces would be too strong; they would
counteract my ability to alter my center of gravity."

He gazed at the machine, gauging the distance. "I believe if I hold onto your legs, you can
reach it."

Sikozu gazed at him warily. "I will try," she consented and drew out her vial of toxin.

"Use this as well," said Scorpius, handing her his own supply. Perhaps they could
substitute quantity for precision.

Switched on, the engine roared and whirled the air. Scorpius sat and braced himself
against a guardrail, while Sikozu clambered awkwardly under the rail and clung to it. Scorpius
took hold of ankles and gripped them tightly enough that his thumbs almost touched the tips of
his fingers. Idly, the thought occurred that if she had not been wearing boots, he could have
encompassed her small ankles in his hands easily.

"Are you ready?" she asked him.

"I am," he replied.

She let go of the guardrail and promptly thwacked against the side of the cylinder. Her
impact jolted him, and her altered position required to him to shift his grip if he was to keep hold
of her. He determined to shift it one ankle at a time.

When he first loosened his hold, she cried out, "What are you--?" Then, evidently she
divined the answer, for she promptly fell silent.

She scrabbled against the wall, reaching down to the engine.

"Lower!" she called up.

He moved forward and down as far as he could.

There followed more scrabbling and some cursing. He could not see her well enough to
follow her progress. After perhaps a hundred microts, she called out, "I have done it."

He pulled her up till she could grasp the guardrail, then let her go. While she was
composing herself, he checked at the surveillance monitor again. The guard's absence from his
post had been noted. They were sweeping through the security cameras and would find blanked
ones soon.

"We must go now," he told her.

They were more than halfway back to the refrigeration chamber, when rounding a corner
too fast, they almost smashed into a Scarran. Before they could react, it had seized Scorpius' arm
in a vice-like grip. Scorpius twisted and lunged at it with all his might, not enough to do that
Scarran any damage but enough to stumble momentarily free.

"Get down!" he heard Sikozu yell and flung himself onto the floor just in time to glimpse
the yellow gleam of her radiation before covering his eyes. The heat bloomed out as if from
inside him. He could imagine his skin blistering and liquefying. Then, the worst of the heat
faded, and there was a weak tugging at his shoulders.

"We must hurry," said Sikozu, on her knees by his side. Behind her, the Scarran sprawled
motionless.

Scorpius heaved himself up and pulled her up roughly beside him. They both stumbled
dizzily. Sikozu was shaking with exhaustion, worse off apparently than he was. Supporting her
with one arm, he hurried her back toward the refrigeration chamber. By escaping the way he
came, he could keep himself off the security cameras.

They made it to through the chamber and out the door into the grass. They'd gone
several hundred paces when an alarm in military code began to shout instructions for capturing
infiltrators. They quickened their pace. The heat from Sikozu's body burned into him where she
touched him. After perhaps fifty microts, the coded instructions changed, but they were too far
away now for Scorpius to make out specific words.

Sikozu twisted to look back as they ran.

"They are coming," she panted.

But he and Sikozu were already at the hatch of their ship. When they reached the flight
deck, she fell into her chair and began the launch sequence.

"Get to your pod," she ordered. "We will stand a better chance of one of us surviving if
we go in two directions."

They had stored his pod in the hopper's bay to keep it off their silhouette, while leaving
it as a means of escape. But now, he did not see how it would help them.

"We will not," he answered breathless and fell in a chair beside her. "Already, all stations
are being alerted to our presence. The Scarrans have more than enough ships to gun down both of
us."

"Well?"

They were lifting up from the field and, without motive, Scorpius suspected, Sikozu was
steering them in the direction they had come from.

"We will use this more conspicuous ship as a diversion," he decided, "and both attempt to
escape in my pod."

"But they are watching this ship; they will see your pod."

True. "We must use the pod as a diversion as well. We can place both ships on autopilot
and abandon them. I suggest ejecting from the pod, as it remains the less conspicuous vessel."

"Ejecting where?" Sikozu demanded.

In the viewer behind them, a Scarran ship was rising from the retreating speck of the
coordination station.

Scorpius reviewed his knowledge of this planet, searching for a likely hiding place.
Nothing was presenting itself.

Sikozu turned to him sharply. "Your mother's pod."

That was absurd! "It may well be booby-trapped," he answered.

"Perhaps," said Sikozu, "but it is also a place they are unlikely to look--unless they know
you are here, which, since you blanked the cameras, they should not. It is shelter. It is a ship
that may even be made space-worthy."

Yes. She was correct. The pod was a technologically serviceable object that was also a
ruin in a wasteland. On every Scarran database for the planet, it would be recorded as an
irrelevant derelict. Just now, it appeared the best option.

"Set the autopilot on a plausible escape vector," he said, "and meet me in my pod."

 

Part III

Sikozu doubted they would leave this planet alive. By the time they were ready to eject,
they had scanned three Scarran ships in pursuit, two following the planet-hopper and one
Scorpius' pod. The ship following them was barely within visual range. Far too close.

They ran Scorpius' pod low over the ground just west of his mother's and ejected, falling
in a heap in the grass, cushioned by their ejector seats' crash fields. No time to run. They hid in
the tall oats as best they could and waited for the Scarran ship to pass--or come for them.

Perhaps sixty microts later, it shrieked over them without slowing. They lay still in the
dark for another quarter arn, long enough for the night to chill Sikozu. Then, half-staggering, they
moved east toward the old pod.

The main hatch was unfastened.

"Touch nothing but the floor--and that with care," said Scorpius.

As he clicked the hatch into place behind them, the moonlit night went black. For a
microt, there was nothing but the rush of their breathing. Then a brief rustling, and a small
emergency lamp flared on. Scorpius placed it on the floor. In its cold light, furnishings leapt out
of the shadows: two consoles, a bed, storage units, four seats. Sikozu shivered. Though the
temperature was above freezing, her use of her radiation had drained her, made her sensitive to
environmental stressors. Feeling all at once that her legs would collapse, she sat on the floor,
staring awkwardly up at the consoles.

Scorpius was running a hand scanner around the pod with slow deliberation. The extent
of his precautions suggested an excessive fear of this place. Sikozu wondered how acute in his
prior capture here stood out in his mind.

He looked terrible. The skin of his face was oozing in places where her radiation had
degraded the tissue. She could only hope the damage had been merely superficial.

"Are you all right?" she asked him.

"For the moment," he replied without breaking off from his scanning.

Sikozu strove to recall the details Scorpius had told her of his mother's capture. Rylani
and her husband had not been here more than two solar days. If the pod had been properly
maintained, it should still have edible food concentrates and an emergency water supply in case
recycling became unavailable. She studied the pod more closely. A thick layer of dust covered
everything, and clumps that looked and smelled like mold had gathered on the non-metallic
surfaces, most notably the bed. Beside the bed lay a discarded heap that might once have been a
blanket, fit now only for constituent recycling.

Scorpius stepped close past her, still scanning--he made a surreptitious scan of her as
well, she noted. His face was shining with sweat.

"We should change your cooling rods," she observed.

"Presently," he answered.

She was on the point of grabbing his emergency pack and locating the replacement rods,
when it occurred to her that he would not trust her to rifle through his supplies. So she sat still
and waited.

After a time he said, "I can locate no sign of a trap." He paused. "Which does not mean
there is none. I suggest that we tamper with this pod's systems as little as we reasonably can."

"Very well," said Sikozu. "Now let me change your rods."

Scorpius sat heavily on the floor and let her do so. His used rods were so hot to the
touch that it almost hurt to hold them. But she herself was so cold that the heat was more than
welcome. After she had replaced his rods, she placed the hot ones in strategic spots inside her
clothes; Scorpius watched her with slight smile.

A little warmer, Sikozu found that she was enormously tired. She eyed the teeming
ecosystem that the bed had become. There were worse things, of course, than sleeping in mold.
Still. . .

"I wonder if there is spare bedding stored here." With difficulty, she got to her feet and
made for the storage compartments. Gingerly, she opened one, then another. There were food
and water--and blankets too, only slightly mildewed.

Fighting exhaustion by sheer will, she stripped the old bedding and arranged the new.
Scorpius studied her, no doubt finding her fastidiousness a waste of energy. Then, to her
surprise, he got up and helped her, tossing the old bedding into the recycler. As soon as the
blankets were in place, she pulled off her boots and collapsed on the mattress, sticking herself
with one of the still warm cooling rods. She repositioned it and settled down to sleep. He
lowered the lamp to a faint glow and lay down beside her. She kept her back to him; it seemed
easier that way. Though they were not touching, his heat radiated against her. Soon she was
warm and comfortable.

He must have awakened her when he rose. One moment, there was sleep and the next she
lay half-dozing, dimly aware that the lamp was brighter. Finally, she roused herself enough to
look around. He was sitting in one of the flight chairs. Her first impression was that there was
something horribly wrong with his head. Then, she saw he had merely taken off his hood. After
a microt, it came to her that he was cleaning up his damaged skin with an antiseptic wash. She
lay back down.

In their time together, she had seen him naked on several occasions but seen his naked face
only once--the first time they had recreated. His reticence was not surprising: he looked like a
different man without the mask and hood. His head seemed larger, less Sebacean. She
remembered staring at the pale scars the straps had etched on his face with decades of rubbing.
He did not like to be looked at that way; she would not look at him now.

Presently, he donned the hood again and crossed to the storage compartments.

"Is your face worse?" she asked.

"Better," he replied, pulling out field rations.

"Have you suffered other ill-effects from the radiation?"

"It appears to have been limited to my exposed skin."

A surge of relief shook the last remnants of sleep from Sikozu. She sat up, disarranging
the cooling rods still wedged into her clothing. The rods were now a lukewarm purplish-pink.
She returned them to Scorpius' emergency pack to cool, aware of his eyes scrutinizing her
movements.

She watched him eat his rations; she herself would not need to eat for another weeken.
Then they took stock of the pod. There was no obvious sign of damage. The water should last
about ten days, the food longer. The toilet was designed to operate mechanically if power was
lost.

While she assessed their supplies, he activated a low power receiver, which should pull in
enough coms traffic to give a sense of Scarran activity. The toxicity in the Chrystherium fields
was reported as pervasive. They grinned at each other at that. The only other relevant com was
a clipped announcement: both ships destroyed, search for survivors continuing.

"Once search efforts are scaled back," Scorpius said, "we should lift off, leave orbit, and
then power down non-essential systems."

"And send a distress signal?" Sikozu added. At some point, they must either call for
rescue or procure another ship; they could not escape by themselves in a pod with no faster than
light capability.

"It seems the best course," he answered. "If we are fortunate, the distress frequency your
colleagues provided will not register on Scarran sensors."

"It will not," declared Sikozu. "We know better than that." She looked with trepidation
at the dust covering the controls. "If we plan to lift this thing off, we must run systems checks."

"No," said Scorpius. "Not yet. We will wait until the search for us is no longer top
priority before powering up the computer."

That made sense. If the Scarrans read a power signature from this pod, they would
certainly investigate.

"Then, there is nothing else to do," she said.

"Not for moment," he replied and returned to the bed, where he thumped on his back and
lay motionless.

Sikozu wandered around the pod, reflecting that her intellect had not been constructed to
accommodate long periods of pointless idleness.

"We could improvise a chess set," she suggested.

After a microt, he replied, "If you wish," by which she suspected he meant, "Learn how
to amuse yourself, you infant."

She rummaged through the storage compartments once more. Under some bedding, she
discovered a small carrier bag. Opening it with all due caution, she found inside a globe
representing a planet she could not immediately identify; a data chip marked "Motak 4: Water
Survey," a crude statuette inscribed "Audiovisual Abstracts: Third Place," dated some sixty
cycles ago, and an assortment of 2D pictures of Sebaceans. Sikozu could recognize Rylani and
her husband from the files Scorpius had let her see. They looked young and happy and entirely
unremarkable. She did not know the other people.

Scorpius would want to see this.

"Scorpius," she called, "are you familiar with these?"

He came to sit beside her and glanced through the pictures quickly. "I have previously
located some of these images in public data stores," he remarked. "Others are new to me." It
puzzled Sikozu that he seemed uninterested in them. If she had a real family, she would want to
know all she could about it. Even the scientists who'd created her had always held a personal
fascination. Even Scorpius' family intrigued her.

"Do you know these other people?" she asked. "Besides Rylani and Ghebb?"

With seeming reluctance, he scanned through the pictures again. "This is my mother's
sister." He pointed to a young woman smiling, with an arm around Rylani. "She is now
matriarch of the surviving family on New Heather." He ran through a few more pictures. "These
are her parents": a slightly older-looking man and woman. "I am unacquainted with the others."
He set the pictures down and took up the statuette. "The New Heather public database has a
record my mother's winning this award for a fractal-based sound painting."

"Unusual for a farmer," Sikozu observed.

After some microts, he said, "In an interview for the local news reports, she was asked if
she planned to pursue a career as an artist. She said she considered art a hobby and wished to
remain a farmer."

It was not difficult to see the rest of the thought: if she had given up being a farmer, she
would probably be alive today.

Sikozu picked up the globe to distract him. "New Heather?" she surmised.

He sighed as he got up. "They would have done well to stay there." He returned to the
bed and was still.

Sikozu had expected a greater show of interest. Yet perhaps he was not uninterested so
much as loath to show his interest to her. He did not trust her anymore. And when one did not
trust, one minimized the vulnerabilities one shared.

She found herself thinking of Madahe, the scientist who had been her genetic template.
She remembered watching Madahe's face and pondering how her own face would wrinkle like the
older woman's someday. Madahe had been killed before Sikozu had come to Moya. Aside from
the decimation of the Resistance and the loss of Scorpius' good will, that death was the most
painful wound Sikozu had suffered.

It must be something like that, the way Scorpius thought of Rylani. He cared for her even
though she had been dead his whole life.

A new thought occurred.

He had come to help Sikozu at the coordination station, even though he could have left
her, aborted the mission and seeded the toxin at a later time. Did that indicate he still cared for
her too?

***

There were too many things in this pod that Scorpius would rather not observe: on the
floor, a pink smear, almost certainly Ghebb's blood cleaned up hastily by the Peacekeepers who
had discovered his body; a pulse pistol blast mark on the wall, a shot gone wide, Ghebb's too
probably. Scorpius had thrown the old blanket away, the one that had lain on that spot on the
floor ever since his mother had knocked it there, startled out of her sleep by the Scarrans.

The personal effects Sikozu had uncovered intensified his agitation. He had once found a
recording of his mother's third place sound painting: a swirling array of colors and harmonics
constructed according to a fractal pattern. The skill with which she had executed it had reinforced
his belief that his own predisposition for mathematics came from her. He had wondered
sometimes how things might have been different if her family had sent her to a science academy,
or if the Peacekeepers had conscripted her. She might have had a career as a scientist. She might
never have had to endure--

That, of course, was the most futile type of conjecture: the longing to alter the past. Part
of him whispered that wormholes could do it, that John had done it, temporarily altering the
Earth of his own past. But the possibility lacked practical application. The variables were too
difficult to account for.

And still, he wasted his time imagining a better life for her.

He regretted having told Sikozu so much of his origins. His mother's name on her lips
reminded him of how much she knew, of how advantageous a position she was in to make
psychological assessments of him, to plan manipulations to which he might, in fact, succumb.

He had told Natira of his origins too. Raw with youth, he had gone to her after killing
Tauza because he'd needed to speak of all he'd learned about his mother. But when he had tried,
the words had strangled. He had kissed her instead. That had been the first time he had recreated
with her. When they had finished, he had locked himself in the washroom so that she would not
see him cry. He had not cried since that day.

He was not a youth anymore. Once, long ago, he had trusted Natira. But cycles of
experience had taught him better. By the time she had attempted to kill him, he had scarcely been
surprised. He had felt ill-used but not betrayed.

Betrayal required confidence. And how could he, as careful as he'd known himself to be,
have placed so much confidence in Sikozu with so little justification?

After he had told Natira of his mother--and regretted it, he had assured himself that he
would not repeat the error. Yet within a cycle of having met Sikozu, he had done so. It almost
defied belief that she had made him such a fool.

He realized with a start that for a half-arn, at least, he had not been attending to the coms
traffic babbling through the receiver. He got up and loaded the last arn's signals to the receiver's
small vid screen as text. Scrolling through, he found that the search for them continued, but
priority had now been given to combating the poison in the fields. They would not find it easy
to counteract. He wanted to feel triumphant at the Scarrans' consternation, but, in the main, he
felt merely weary.

"They've deprioritized us," Sikozu remarked from the floor where she was still looking
through his mother's pictures. For a moment, Scorpius despised her for hammering in her own
presence of mind in staying abreast of coms. She looked up at him. "Perhaps we should begin
work on the pod?"

Perhaps they should at that. Begin to put an end to being stranded here together. "We
should attempt to power up the interior systems only," he replied. "If I place my infrared
reflector on full outside the ship, our energy signature should be unobtrusive."

All things considered, the pod was in better condition than Scorpius had anticipated.
Interior power came on without a glitch. Their systems checks, however, kept reporting
different results, indicating that diagnostic program itself was faulty and needed recoding. That
was three arns work. Once corrected, the D. P. reported numerous malfunctions but none that
should prove irreparable.

By the time night had fallen outside, they were both losing efficiency. Though several
arns of work remained, Scorpius convinced Sikozu to power down for the night. He ate his
rations by the light of his emergency lamp, while they listened to snatches of military code.
Ideally, they would have slept in shifts so that one of them could monitor coms traffic. But as
they both needed rest, Scorpius rigged an alarm to the receiver and set it to sound at certain key
words. Then, as last night, he dimmed the lamp, and they went to bed.

They lay side by side for a time, neither speaking nor sleeping, the receiver chattering
across the room. At length, Sikozu got up on her elbow and peered at him aggravatingly.

"You have your grandmother's eyes," she observed, though she could not possibly see it
in the low light.

He glared at her with them.

Unperturbed, she continued, "Your mother had her father's eyes, but you inherited her
recessive gene from her mother." She paused, then added, "I find it curious that a recessive
Sebacean gene should be dominant over a Scarran gene. In terms of basic population genetics,
that seems a challenge to Scarran superiority."

Having no inclination to discuss his genes with Sikozu--and still less to contemplate
"populations" of Scarran-Sebacean hybrids--he replied, "I am not a population."

"No," she agreed and continued to study him.

After some microts, he suggested, "We should sleep," hoping to get her to turn away.

She looked at him a microt longer and said, "You do not wish to recreate with me
anymore, do you?"

Absurdly, the question took him by surprise. He had assumed they could no longer
interact sexually, but it struck him now he had been mistaken. Recreation was an activity that
required neither honesty nor loyalty. There was nothing in Sikozu's betrayal that prevented
them from engaging in sex.

In the silence that stretched out between them, Sikozu bent and kissed him softly. Her
touch was so intimately familiar that it was difficult to believe it had been two cycles since they'd
kissed. Her lips were the same, her scent the same. Her hair brushed his face just as it had before
she'd cut it. And the way he found himself raising his hand to her face and brushing back her hair
was the same as well.

And would it also be the same, the way she won his confidence without his even realizing
how totally he had given it?

It would not, he determined. Now he was on his guard.

As she kissed him deeper, it seemed remarkable that throughout this mission, he had not
desired her, for all at once the desire flared within him. He drew her closer.

She was taking off his gloves as she used to. And though he was glad to have his hands
bare to touch her, he did not like the fact that she took the liberty. When his hands were free, he
retaliated by wrestling her out of her tech's shirt. She grinned and, disposing quickly of the rest
of her clothes, stretched out again on top of him.

He tried to ascertain what she was thinking, but her expression was opaque.

And that was the difference, he realized. She had the same skin, the same limbs, the same
taste. But now he knew that he did not know who she was underneath all of that.

Delicately, he was licking her neck. It occurred to him that he was touching her as he had
when they'd first recreated: unwilling to risk alienating her, he had held her with a scrupulous
gentleness. Later, when he had been more certain of her attachment, he had handled her more
freely. He had experimented with her to discover how much pain her body could unite to
pleasure. They had played at matching pleasure with pain.

But they were not playing now. Just under the surface, his rage at her still simmered. If
he hurt her now, it was likely he would hurt her less to pleasure than to punish. And that was
unacceptable--most especially here, in his mother's bed, in this bed where perhaps she had
recreated for the last time willingly with her husband.

He turned Sikozu onto her back and mounted her, her skin soft against his hands and face.
She wound her arms around his back tightly so that he could feel the pressure through his suit.
Under ideal circumstances, the ambient temperature would be cool enough for him to recreate
naked. But if they were discovered here, he did not want to be without his clothes on—and he
was still weakened by Sikozu's radiation. She had stopped at removing his gloves, just as she'd
always stopped before. He knew that she preferred him to take his suit off to recreate, but she
had never asked for more than he was willing to give. He undid his suit enough to free his
erection and felt her wrap her legs around him. When he entered her, she sighed and whispered
softly, "I have missed you."

It was easy to get lost in her. It merely took a little caution to keep his Scarran half in
check, to hold her carefully as if she had been hurt enough already. That was not difficult here in
this bed, where it almost seemed it his mother was watching him. What would she think if she
saw them here? Two aliens recreating? What would she think if she knew he was her son? . . .
What would she think?

The thought died unanswered somewhere in the softness of Sikozu.

***

Sikozu lay quiescent with her head against his shoulder. For the first time since they had
parted, she was completely happy--not with everything in the universe, of course, but happy
with where she was right now. His touch had been like old times, and different too, gentler. No,
that wasn't right, because on the Command Carrier, they had had their gentle moments. It was
not something that had been added but something that was missing--the easy roughness.

Her mood sank a little. He'd been very reserved, as if disinclined to act his desires out
openly with her.

Into her mind, unwelcome, came his words on that day: that he'd only ever used her to
service his desires. She had not believed it. Yet the words kept nagging at her, and, in part, she
could not help but believe.

He had been honest with her before. Honest and inclusive, just as she had asked. In
everything? Well, with sex at least. But had that been the honesty of one who didn't care what
she thought, what she felt? No, it had never been off-hand like that. But this time, when he'd
held her, there had been an intimacy they had seldom reached before.

Or was it a distance?

Her contentment was giving way to a confusion that defied analysis.

Not knowing what else to do, she wrapped an arm around him and drew closer. He let
her do so, even embraced her in return. That, in itself, restored her peace a little. She could hear
his metabolically accelerated heart thundering under her head, as a child in the womb might hear
it. For all these two cycles, she had longed to put her arms around him, as if grasping his body
could bring his faith in her back. She knew better than that obviously. But the fantasy held some
comfort nonetheless.

She needed to hear him speak, needed to know where his mind was. She pondered
various things she might say and how he might respond. It all seemed empty words. Of course,
what she wanted to tell him was--

--was what she should tell him, she realized. If she wished for honesty, she must give it.
Even if it made her seem a sentimental fool. Even if that was what she was.

"Scorpius," she said carefully, "I wish to be with you again."

After a moment, he remarked, "I am not averse to recreating with you in the future."

She raised herself up to look at his face. "I mean, I wish to live with you again, to work
with you."

He was gazing at her narrowly. "Surely, you have prior responsibilities to the
Resistance." Though his tone had not changed, there was a sting in the words.

She bit back a retort. "I could serve as your liaison to the Resistance."

"I already have the three contacts you provided."

"But I am more accustomed to working on the outskirts of Scarran space, where you
coordinate your network."

"I find the contacts you provided sufficient."

Her anger blazed up. "None of those contacts--" She stopped and continued more calmly,
"None of those contacts is prepared to offer you the personal loyalty I have to you."

He smiled. "Loyalty?"

She shook her head. "You still believe I am planning to betray you."

He drew back from her a little to meet her gaze better. In a quieter, serious voice, he said,
"Sikozu, the difficulty is not that I expect you to betray me. The difficulty is that I lack the
means to determine satisfactorily whether or not you have."

Sikozu digested that for some microts and realized with a start that it was a grave
admission. He had as much as told her that her powers of deception outmatched his perception.
She was proud of his praise, shamed by his distrust, and sorry for him all at once. He was so far
from comprehending.

"Scorpius, you must understand that if I was able to conceal my. . . alliance with the
Scarrans, it was because the only things I had to conceal were the implant in my shoulder and my
agitation. My hatred for the Scarrans, my desire to aid the Peacekeepers, my loyalty to you: that
was truth, not concealment."

For a moment, he studied her. Then, to her surprise, he said, "I believe that."

"Then you know that I belong with you."

"On the contrary, you have articulated precisely the reason we should not work
together."

This was beyond exasperating. "How?"

He took on his lecturing tone. "It is an axiom that lies are most effective when they stand
near to the truth. By your own admission, the more loyal you wish to be to me, the more readily
you might deceive me, if you felt the necessity of doing so."

"And what are the odds of my feeling that necessity ever again?" she snapped.

For a time, he did not answer. Then he said only, "Incalculable."

She pulled away from him and, in the chill of the night, searched for her clothes. As she
jerked them on, she asserted, "You are a pitiable fool."

It seemed he hesitated. "You have a right to think so."

She settled back under the blankets a little way from him. "You," she said, "are
discarding something unique. You are discarding an ally who has only two things in this universe
left to care about: freeing my people and you."

As she said the words, she felt the weight of her own admission. Madahe was gone. She
could not safely speak to the others who had made her. For safety's sake, too, she seldom saw
her bioloid colleagues, never got to know them. Some of the people on Moya had begun once to
seem a little like friends. But her ties to them had not survived her leaving with Scorpius. When
she had returned during the war, they had not even looked at her. They had not even said,
"Hello." And all of that left only two things to hold to: the liberation of the Kalish and him.

She knew what he would say: he'd offer a mathematically incontrovertible explanation of
why the vital task was decimate Scarran power, at the expense of the Kalish if necessary.

He did not say it. He did not say anything. In the quiet, she listened to Scarran voices
crackling in spurts of military code.

It was a long time before she could sleep.

***

Sikozu's profession of loyalty had all the hyperbole of seduction. It bothered Scorpius
that he was inclined, nonetheless, to consider it genuine. And perversely, it also bothered him
that he did not believe her completely. Inanely, he wanted to have trust in her and skepticism
both.

More troubling was her contention that circumstances should not arise that would
persuade her to betray him again. He had told her the probability of such a betrayal was
incalculable, which was true--but ridiculous. Realistically, she was correct: the odds of her being
compromised as she had been before were minuscule. Such a circumstance would require her to
survive capture; it would require the Scarrans to produce another significant threat against her
people. That was not so hard to envision. But it was also require their willingness to make use
of her a second time, when the first time had ended with her discovery. And if she were working
with him and they knew it, they would know he must be on his guard: it all made her an
unattractive option for a spy.

Weighing the facts, he could only conclude that his fear of betrayal was unwarranted. At
bottom, he believed he had known that already.

But did that mean he should trust her again?

For the true problem was not Sikozu's actions but the failure in judgment she occasioned
in him. He trusted her, but he did not trust himself to trust her.

***

Sikozu jerked awake to the whining of the alarm. While Scorpius turned up the light, she
scrambled to the receiver to check the coms traffic.

"The search has been called off," she reported to Scorpius. "They're diverting all
personnel to clean-up efforts in the fields." She read on. "Agricultural specialists have been
called in from off-planet: four freighters should be arriving within a solar day."

"Then, now is our window to leave," he said. He was already powering up the computer.

After five arns of interior repairs, they were ready to check propulsion. Unsurprisingly,
the check showed mechanical faults. In the icy gray of dawn, they made a visual exam of the
launch system. The aft thrusters were half-buried, and vegetation had invaded several
subsystems. While Sikozu pulled roots out of the stabilizer, Scorpius began to dig the thrusters
out with a hoe, of all things—an implement only a farmer would store on a life pod.

The sun was sinking toward the horizon by the time they were prepared to launch. The
Scarran ships read less than six arns away.

Sikozu held her breath as they ran the launch sequence. The lights read "go"; the pod
rumbled.

Then it stuttered to a halt, a warning light registering a malfunction in the stabilizer.

"Again!" cried Sikozu, unstrapping herself from her chair. "I spent three arns on that
thing." It would have to be a system she had been working on that chose to break down.

Scorpius, she noted ruefully, said nothing, leaving the blinking of the warning light to bear
testament against her.

The launch sequence had shaken apart several frayed connections that would need to be
replaced. It was not her fault, she told herself. But it took more than an arn for the two of
them to cannibalize the necessary parts from other systems and make the repairs.

They tried again. Again, the pod rumbled. Four tolerance warning lights came on, but
that was not worth powering down for. With agonizing slowness, they arced up into the air.
Sikozu's heart was pounding ferociously. If any Scarran spotted them now, they were
defenseless.

But no one attacked them.

They swung through a partial orbit, plotted a trajectory away from Scarran space. Then,
as they had planned, they cut power, save for life support and basic sensors.

Taut as a vibrating string, Sikozu trembled.

They waited and watched. After four arns, the first Scarran ships arrived. Over the next
two arns, one by one, the freighters skimmed razor-close past the pod's position and landed on
the planet. When all the ships had landed, Sikozu activated the distress signal gave in to fatigue.

She fell asleep in the light of the sensor readout that Scorpius was still monitoring. When
she awoke, groggy and disoriented, he was sleeping beside her. She recalibrated her internal
chronometer: two arns had passed. She got up and checked the sensors: nothing.

He was gazing at her when she turned back to the bed.

She lay down once more beside him. "Nothing," she said, referring to the sensors--and,
she realized, to much more than that.

He made no reply. She knew he had nothing to say to her. She had told herself that she
could fix what she'd broken, as if their lives could be mended like a burnt-out circuit. But there
was no way back. She turned away so he would not see her face contort with misery.

Ironic, she thought. She longed to be rescued. But as soon as they were off this pod,
he would walk away again. Again, she had failed.

Out of the gloom, his voice came quietly: "I have found your conduct on this mission
unimpugnable."

For an instant, she felt herself glow to the praise--but a microt later, the glow exploded in
a fire of indignation. She bolted upright, whipping around to face him.

"Do not patronize me," she warned. "I am not your child or your student or your lackey.
I am not your dupe. I am not your tralk. I am your ally, or I am nothing."

She was nothing.

He eyed her coolly. After some microts, he said, "You are a Kalish agent."

Yes. She was. She looked away, embarrassed that it had taken him to remind her.

She was a Kalish agent, and as such, she knew that there was always something else to
try. There was always a way forward.

As if in answer to the thought, a signal began to beep the response code to their distress
call.

***

It would be a relief to be rid of Sikozu. In another twenty arns, the planet-hopper that
had picked them up would deposit Scorpius at his nearest base and take her back to the
Resistance. And then he could clean his mind of her.

Their Kalish pilot had requested they stay in the mess hall, which was shielded from
certain scans, while he passed through customs checkpoints.

So Scorpius watched Sikozu eat. As long as he was confined with her, he could at least
observe whether her recent use of her radiation had left her more than usually hungry. It had, at
any rate, prompted her to eat earlier than she had indicated she'd need to. She had performed
well on Motak 4. There was no doubt of that. She had often made a valuable ally. And if she
wished to be his ally again. . . ?

But he needed her gone.

No. Of course, he did not need it.

But he wanted it, as he wanted to be free of the belongings of his mother's she had
smuggled off the life pod. He had determined to return them to the family on New Heather. The
package must not, of course, be traceable to him. Perhaps he should contact Br--

Sikozu's voice intruded.

"I have a practical suggestion," she said.

"Regarding what?"

She swallowed a large bite of flibisk and answered, "Us. Enabling you to trust me."

More of this? He waited.

After a microt, she went on, "I do not wish to be implanted with a transmitter. But I
would consent to a basic tampering alarm, designed to send you a signal if certain parameters are
broken--if, for example, I undergo a surgical procedure, or if an unfamiliar electric signal is noted
in my body. Such a device would have alerted you immediately to the coms the Scarrans
implanted in me."

An interesting idea. "It would also alert me to circumstances such as your torture."

"Yes, it would," said Sikozu, "which would be a good thing for me. . . if you chose to take
action in response to such an alert."

He smiled. They both knew that he was not likely to be in a position to send a rescue
force across light years just for her.

Sikozu looked down at her food. "Of course, such a device can be switched off. But it
can be keyed to send an alert prior to shutdown if it is not shut off according to the proper code
sequence. I would consent to allow you to be the sole holder of that code."

That surprised him. As an indication of her sincerity, it was convincing. The only other
person he had known who had willingly submitted to long-term tracking at his sole discretion
was Braca. And Braca he trusted. And yet there were still many ways that Sikozu could deceive
him without her body being tampered with.

He made no reply.

She chewed her food for a time, then said quietly, "I was thinking that--if you deemed it
efficacious--I would be willing to submit, as well, to a remote relay for the device that could
incapacitate. . . or perhaps. . . kill me, if you judged that the risk of my being. . . compromised
was too great."

That had to be a bluff. Unsure how to respond, he opted for a simple, logical reply: "The
odds of a situation arising in which I would be able to make such an assessment from a remote
location are quite low."

She threw him a wry smile. "I am wagering that, in assessing, you would err on the side
of caution? --caution with my life, I mean."

"You are willing to place that much trust in me?"

She hesitated. "I have trust enough."

Trust enough. He found himself turning over scenarios in which her offer might be used
against him. He was about to tell her he would take it under consideration, when he realized there
was no need. People could no more be one hundred percent reliable than conventional energetic
reactions could be one hundred percent efficient. That being, as ever, the case, what she had
offered was the most he could expect, was more than he could have expected.

"I consent to your suggestion," he told her.

She stared at him a moment, as if genuinely started. Then, she got up and crossed around
the table to sit next to him. "Then, my life is in your hands," she said gravely.

"It has been before," he replied. "And you are alive."

She smiled slightly. "Why else do you think I offered?"

He took her by the hand and drew her into his lap. "And you wish to be my liaison?"

She rested her forehead against his. "I believe I have earned it."

"I believe you have."

He kissed her hard.