* * * * * * * * * *

“Would you like some more potatoes, Jack?”

“Um? Ah, I’m sorry, Mom. What did you say?”

“I asked you if you’d like some more potatoes.” Christina McBryde smiled and shook her head. “Your father and I are delighted your body could join us for dinner tonight, of course, dear, but it would be kind of nice if your brain could keep it company next time.”

Jack snorted and raised both hands in chuckling surrender.

“Sorry, Mom — sorry!” He extended his hands in front of him, wrists together. “Guilty as charged, officer. And I can’t even argue that my parents didn’t teach me better when I was a sprout.”

“I’d heard you’d had a proper upbringing,” his mother told him, dark eyes glinting. “I have to admit, though, that until just a second or two ago, I would have found the rumor hard to believe.”

“Ease up a little, Chris,” Thomas McBryde intervened with a chuckle of his own. “The accused has admitted his guilt and thrown himself on the mercy of the court. I think a little clemency might be in order.”

“Nonsense!” Zachariah put in from his end of the table. “Throw the book at the bum, Mom! Off to bed with no dessert!”

“Oh, I couldn’t do that to him,” Christina replied. “We’re having carrot cake with butter cream icing.”

“Oh, my. Your carrot cake?” Zachariah shook his head. “That would constitute cruel and unusual punishment.”

“Yes, it would,” Jack agreed emphatically.

“Why, thank you,” his mother said with a dimpled smile. Then her expression sobered just a bit. “Seriously, Jack, you’ve been distracted all night. Is it something to do with your job, or can you talk about it?”

Jack’s blue eyes warmed as he looked across the table at her. Christina McBryde was a sculptress and a painter, one whose light sculptures, in particular, commanded high prices not just here on Mesa, but in the Solarian League’s art markets, as well. She’d never really wanted him to go into law enforcement, far less into Alignment Security. That was a job she knew someone had to do, but she’d been afraid of what a career in AS might cost her older son’s soul along the way. She hadn’t stood in his way, especially when all of the LRPB’s aptitude tests confirmed how good he’d be at it, but she’d never liked it.

His father had been more supportive, although he’d had more than a few reservations of his own. He himself was a senior administrator in the Department of Education, and he’d never made any secret of the fact that he’d been both relieved and happy when his and Christine’s oldest child, JoAnne, had decided to go into childhood education. Their second daughter — and their youngest child — Arianne had turned out (not surprisingly) to share Zachariah’s scientific bent. She was a chemist, and despite her relative youth (she was only forty-nine T-years old) she’d recently become a scientific advisor to the CEO of the Mesa System government. The McBryde family could take solid, quiet pride in its contributions to the Alignment and to its homeworld (which weren’t always the same things), yet there was no denying that both of Jack’s parents worried about him.

And with good reason, he thought. He managed to keep his own expression light and semi-amused, but it was difficult. Just as it was difficult to realize that barely a T-month had passed since his first conversation with Simões. It didn’t seem possible that he could have become so aware of — and oppressed by — the other man’s pain and its inevitable final outcome in so short a period. Yet he had . . . and with the becoming, for the first time in a long time, he understood exactly why his mother had wanted him to do something else with his life.

“In some ways, Mom,” he told her, “I really wish I could talk about it with you. I think you’d probably be able to help. Unfortunately, it does have to do with work, so I can’t discuss it.”

“You’re not in any sort of . . . trouble?” she asked quietly.

“Me?” His laugh was at least three-quarters genuine, and he shook his head. “Believe me, Mom, I’m not in any kind of trouble. It’s just –”

He paused for a moment, then shrugged.

“I can’t really talk about it, but I suppose I can tell you it’s just that one of the people I’m responsible for is in a lot of personal pain at the moment. It doesn’t have anything to do with his job, or with me, really, but . . . he’s hurting. And even though the reason he is doesn’t have anything to do with his job, it’s to the point where his emotional state could start affecting the quality of his work. And because of the nature of what he does and what I do, I’m one of the very few people he can talk to about it.”

He glanced at Zachariah from the corner of one eye and saw from his brother’s explanation that Zack had realized exactly who he was talking about. Zachariah’s blue eyes darkened, and Jack knew he, too, was comparing their family life with what happened to Herlander and Francesca Simões.

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that!” Christina’s quick sympathy was genuine, and she reached out to lay one hand on her son’s forearm. “At least if he can only talk to a few people about it, I know at least one of them is going to have a sympathetic ear,” she said.

“I try, Mom. I try. But it’s one of those cases where there’s not really much anybody can do except listen.” He shook his head, his eyes shadowed. “I don’t think this story’s going to have a happy ending,” he said quietly.

“All you can do is all you can do, son,” Thomas told him. “And your mom’s right. If he’s got you to talk to, then at the least this person, whoever he is, knows he’s not all alone with it. Sometimes that’s the most important thing of all.”

“I’ll try to remember that,” Jack promised.

There was a moment of silence, then he shook himself and smiled at his mother.

“However, in answer to the missed question which started this entire conversational thread, if we’ve got carrot cake for dessert, then, no, I don’t want any more potatoes. I’m not about to waste any space I could use on a second or third helping of carrot cake on mashed potatoes!”