Discarding the towel, Shimon took Titus’s elbow, steering him to his office. “They said you signed yourself out of the infirmary. Maybe you shouldn’t have. Here, sit-”
Titus repossessed his elbow. “I’m all right. Do you have any idea where they went?”
Shimon cocked his head in an Israeli mannerism which others in the lab had picked up. “Abbot wasn’t after your girl-”
“Don’t get the idea she’s my girl,” commanded Titus with enough Influence to drive it home. “I need to talk to both of them before the press demonstration. Where did they go?”
Mechanically, Shimon said, “Abbot mentioned Segal’s Castle, but I don’t know.”
Titus realized he’d hit Shimon too hard. “Forget I mentioned it.” Titus changed the subject. “Thank you, Shimon. You deserve all the credit for this miracle.” He gestured at the reassembled computers visible through the levelors.
“Oh no. No, no, no. Abbot-”
“Abbot only does what’s easy for him. You’ve surpassed yourself. That won’t go unnoticed.”
* * *
He found Inea dawdling over coffee at a little table. Crumbs littered the white cloth. There was a red rose in a crystal holder, and a red candle at the center. White china and gleaming silver scattered about showed two had dined.
It took all his nerve to walk across the thick red carpet and sit in the red velvet chair opposite her.
Slowly, as if in a faraway dream, she raised her eyes to meet his. Her eyes were vacant, her expression slack.
She’d been debriefed under strong Influence, but Abbot had not Marked her. He released his breath. If he hadn’t silenced her, he would now be the target of two assassins.
There was no sign of Abbot’s minions in the restaurant. Titus waved the waiter away, and passed his hand before Inea’s eyes. She didn’t blink. Damn that man! The icy lump he’d been carrying in his midsection since she’d rejected him grew much larger. Titus hadn’t done anything like this to Sisi.
Despite his promise, Titus had to use his power on her. She couldn’t handle the press like this. In a few hours, she’d revive spontaneously. But they didn’t have hours.
Abbot must have left traps for him, traps to make him injure her if he tried to bring her out of it. He knew I’d find her, or he wouldn’t have left her here like this. But why would he want her to miss the demonstration? He sat back and dismissed awareness of all distractions.
“Talk to me,” he commanded, interrogating her and watching her aura respond. Finally, it became clear that Abbot had used extreme force because Inea had fought hard. Maybe I interrupted him, so he just left her for me to deal with.
It was a good hypothesis. He found no hidden traps-no reason not to wake her. Shrouding himself in the semblance of Abbot, he donned Abbot’s voice and set his hand in the focal plane of her eyes. Moving his hand, he trapped her gaze then snapped his fingers and withdrew his hand to the plane of his own race, saying, “Remember!” in Abbot’s voice.
Her eyes focused and she recoiled with a stifled squeal.
He cast aside the Abbot illusion, saying, “You may speak now. This is a private conversation.”
She shrank away. “Who are you! For God’s sake, stay the right person!”
“Inea, it’s me. Titus. I’ve broken my promise-”
“It was you all along-but-why-”
“No! That was Abbot. He had you in thrall. I used my power to break your trance and restore your memory of what he did. I thought that’s what you’d want.”
She started to breathe normally, but her hands clutched her nearly empty cup. “I see now why you refused to use those illusions on me again, after that first time. Not knowing what’s real. Are you really you?”
“Abbot never knew-I had a dog named Tippy, mostly black spaniel. He got fat cadging snacks off your mother.”
A smile played around her lips. “I guess you’re you.”
“Inea-I didn’t think Abbot would do that to you. I’d have protected you, come what may, if I’d suspected he’d-”
Expressionlessly, she said, “You said he was ethical.”
“He warned me-I didn’t know what he meant, but he did warn me.” He put his hand palm up on the table, not daring to reach out to touch her, but knowing they both needed it.
She ignored his hand. “You couldn’t have stopped him. You said so yourself last night.”
“I could have Marked you. He wouldn’t have touched you then.” And he explained what that meant under luren law. “I didn’t want to last night because it would have been a blatant signal that you were important to me. Now it’s too late to hide that. But if you want, I’ll place the Mark.”
“If you’d told me about the Mark-before you told me what you people are-I’d have demanded it. I belonged to you-”
He noted the past tense. The world froze.
When she didn’t say anything, he felt compelled to add, “I wanted to tell you all of it, let it be your choice-”
“It’s too late. He’s already done his worst.”
“No, he hasn’t Marked you for himself. He hasn’t taken you. He left no permanent commands buried in your mind. He only questioned you-brutally. He found out things I didn’t want him to know, and made sure I’d find out he knows. But he did nothing to you compared to what he could have done. He did it as a warning to me.”
He hadn’t told Inea what he was doing against Abbot. His father had learned nothing important-except how precious Inea was to him. “I don’t think he’ll molest you again because you’ve come to hate me so.” He made his next suggestion with much trepidation. “If you like, I can remove the memory of his interrogation.”
“No!” She recoiled. Then she scrubbed at her face with both hands, and when she looked up again, it was the old Inea staring back at him. “You could do it, couldn’t you? You could do everything he did!”
Stricken, he nodded. Tarred with the same brush.
Only she added, in a hard, positive voice, “But you wouldn’t. You were willing to starve, to face any nightmare, to take any humiliation, rather than do that!”
“I might have lost that resolve. I’m only a flesh and blood creature. Don’t think I’m-”
“But you’re human. That-individual-isn’t!”
“He prides himself on cultivating what he thinks are luren attributes. But he’s as human as I am.”
“How can you defend him!”
“I can’t. I oppose him as absolutely as I love you.”
“Oh, Titus-I-” She fell silent, mouth working as if she wanted to proclaim her love. At last, she put her hand on the table barely touching his. “Give me time. Please.”
“I don’t have it to give. Abbot is running this game. Let me Mark you as my own. I’ll take it away, if you tell me to. But in the meantime, you’ll be safe from him.”
“You said the Mark itself won’t stop him.”
“No. It’s just a law. But he’d die rather than violate our laws.” He had to be brutally honest though. “But as my father, he could force me to remove my Mark, then take you. He wouldn’t, ugh, unless I push him too far. I’ve misjudged him a couple of times, but I’m really very positive about how he regards the Mark. He taught me himself. It would take a threat to The Blood to make him violate a Mark, and he’d expect to be executed for it. Before he’d force me to remove my Mark, he’d have to be willing to kill me. He’s not. He didn’t find out how long you ran around unsilenced. Forgive me, but I checked before I brought you out of it.”
She doodled on the tablecloth. “Think. He’ll be at the demonstration. If I walk in there Marked, he’ll know he’s forced you to a move you didn’t want to make.”
He shook his head. “I don’t care what he thinks-” Neither does she. She doesn’t want to wear a brand.
She balled up her fist and hit the table. “No! You have to care what he thinks! You said you were here to win for all of Earth. If those are the stakes, then I am as expendable as any soldier. For once, you listen to me. We’re going to walk in there pretending nothing at all has happened. From now on, we’re going to seize the initiative, we’re going to force him into a corner, and then we’re going to whip him good. Have you got that, Dr. Shiddehara?”
A slow warmth thawed the icy lump in his belly. An ally. Not a Marked stringer. An ally. “Got it.”
He moved to take her hand, but she froze again. Her voice trembled as she whispered, “I’ll fight him with you. But that’s all I can do now.”
I win her back. I will.
Titus walked back to the lab beside Inea, restlessly scanning the crowds for Abbot’s spies. It was close to the end of the day shift. Gossip raged around them, people talking about the reporters, the assassin, and the threat to close the Project down, sabotage.
The tension in the humans made Titus edgy. Abbot was certainly not about to leap out of some potted shrubbery and devour Inea. He would be in the lab. Colby had arranged for him to take his bows in front of his handiwork.
At the lift, Inea stepped close and asked, “Tell me. Why fight Abbot while working so hard for the Project? If the Probe doesn’t go-”
“The majority of Earth’s people want the probe to go, and they have the right to decide how to run their world.”
The lift they squeezed into was full, so she couldn’t answer until they reached the corridor on the lab’s level. “Don’t the Tourists have an equal right to go home?”
“Certainly. But not at such a price.” He repeated his argument that, with time, humans would be able to defend themselves. “And the Residents will help.” If we still exist. “This is our world. Home. Does that make sense?”
“Yes. But I’m sure not all Residents are like you.”
“True. No two alike. Just like humans.” He wanted to wrap her in his arms and kiss her forever. But he kept his hands to himself. They rounded the last corner, and found a squad of Brink’s security guards outside the lab doors. Their dress uniform trim gleamed, and they stood to attention at full military brace. Pretending to be an honor guard?
It took the guards five minutes to validate their identities and pass them through. Inside, his entire crew was lined up, wearing fresh lab coats and solemn expressions. Among them, Titus counted ten new faces-the plainclothes guards.
W.S. emblems had been stenciled on the consoles. Colby was giving an interview in front of his office, between a W.S. flag and a Project Hail banner that hadn’t been there before.
A young man with a clipboard rushed up to them. “You’d be Dr. Shiddehara-and you are?”
“Inea Cellura, staff astronomer.”
“Fine. Then would you please just step over there with the staff?” He checked off something on his board. “Dr. Shiddehara, would you come with me, please?”
He wanted to pull Inea over with him, but she rolled her eyes, then meekly joined Shimon and the others.
“We’ll want a shot of you at the observatory console that controls the Eighth Antenna Array-that is the one nearest this station?” At Titus’s nod, the young man continued, “A shot of you aiming the Eighth at Taurus sending a signal to Wild Goose will be splendid.” He ignored Titus’s protest that the Eighth couldn’t see Taurus today, and that Wild Goose wasn’t anywhere near Taurus. “Have you seen Dr. Nandoha?”
“No. I haven’t seen him.”
“Titus!” exclaimed Colby. “Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like you to meet the man responsible, Dr. Titus Shiddehara.”
People tucked notepads under their elbows to patter their hands in polite applause. Titus nodded graciously, and let himself be posed for pictures and rapid-fire interviews. Although every reporter represented more than one publication, the crowd still overtaxed the lab’s air system.
When, inevitably, the topic turned to the recent attack on Titus’s life, Colby reached behind her to bring an older woman to the fore. She was nearly Titus’s own height, and had the splendid black skin of deepest Africa and a Haitian accent.
“This is Rebecca Whithers, the lawyer representing the Project in this matter,” said Colby, listing her titles.
Titus couldn’t take his eyes off Whithers. The Project uniform clung to her revealing not a “well-presewed” figure, but contours that bespoke vast strength. Like “Ebony!”
Associations clicked into a pattern. He had seen Ebony outside the centrifuge as he went in. She was the right size to wear the ninja costume, and certainly had the strength. She’d be unlikely to have real computer wizardry. Caught in the act, she’d have forgotten any precise instructions on how to gimmick the controls.
Meanwhile, the lawyer eloquently fielded questions fired at her in three languages. Then someone shifted back to the technical, and she laughed. “Dr. Shiddehara will have to answer that!”
Titus launched into his explanation of how the orbital and extra-solar observatories and probes had tracked the stranger craft into the solar system, how one key probe, Wild Goose, had gone dark-but might yet return, giving vital data on the trajectory.
Then he explained how the craft’s approach line wasn’t sufficient data. Biomed and Engineering would soon provide spectral data. He went on to introduce their demonstrations.
“With all this data, we can choose a logical target for our probe’s message. As you’ve probably heard, we already have a broad region of space identified, the Taurus region.”
Everyone laughed. Speculation had been running wild about every known star in that area ever since Kylyd had been spotted approaching.
Titus cited probabilities to show it was unlikely any visible star was the aliens’ home. Modern instruments-great-grandchildren of the first orbital telescope used in the nineties– had revealed a few possibilities, but all the data wasn’t in yet.
A man Titus thought he recognized stepped forward. “If I might interrupt for a moment, I have something I believe it would be appropriate to present now.”
As he approached Titus, the ten guards in the lab tensed. Titus could feel the atmosphere crackle as the man proffered a small black case. “Here, Dr. Shiddehara, is a copy of your famous private star catalogue.”
“What!” exclaimed Colby.
“Don’t touch that!” yelled a Brink’s guard.
Titus’s hand froze. The guard who’d yelled ran up and whipped the black box from the reporters’ hands, apologizing to the man by name. Titus realized this reporter was famous for the integrity of his investigative reporting.
Titus caught his eye and shrugged ruefully. “Security. After that attack on me-you understand.”
“I see. Well, it is your own catalogue, a gift from sources I can’t name, made before the Project’s official copy-the one taken from your own home-was tampered with.”
“Tampered. !” Colby choked, then whirled and shot to the back of the room issuing rapid-fire orders to a Brink’s guard. He left, and Colby returned, all cameras on her.
“May I ask that you hold off reporting this until we have verified it. We have, at this time, no reason to believe the Project’s copy which arrived on your shuttle has been altered in any way. Most likely, this pirated copy is the one at fault, and I believe only Dr. Shiddehara will be able to discern the truth of the matter.”
One man objected. “The press always tries to cooperate, Dr. Colby, but in this case it might be unwise to-”
She interrupted. “By morning we’ll have an official statement for you. Arrangements will be made for those of you who wish to file copy tomorrow at noon. In the meantime, we do have a most interesting demonstration here. Doctor?”
Titus introduced Inea and she ran the demonstration.
Still Abbot had not showed up. As the reporters peered into the chemists’ tank, Colby fretted, “What could have happened to Abbot? Should I start a search?”
“No,” whispered Titus in answer while all eyes watched the marvelous prize brahma bull stamp and snort among the stars of Taurus-the stars of the constellation connected by flashing lines to show the constellation’s mythical outline changing with the centuries. “He might be coping with some embarrassing malfunction of station life-support. The reporters would love it.”
“Good point. But I’m worried. He said he’d be here.”
“He might be camera shy,” suggested Titus. Older luren avoided publicity so it would be easier to change identities. He hadn’t thought that would be Abbot’s main concern right now.
He still hadn’t shown up when Titus’s own program was ready to run. Titus had to stand amid the computers with Shimon and explain how this was a simplified version of the program they would run on the real data; how he’d inserted plausible guesses for missing facts for the sake of demonstration.
Shimon traced the route of the data through the complex system, through error checking and backup, and went into lurid technical detail for the science reporters, explaining how the system was almost as fast as it had been. Titus interrupted when the others began to stifle yawns. “All right, let’s run it and see what it says.”
His operator punched in the command, smiling for the cameras. Lights flickered all over the lab as the various systems talked to each other. Over the hum, Titus answered questions about how his catalogue would figure in this process when it was read into the system. He mentioned the method he’d developed to determine if a distant system with a gas giant actually had an Earthlike planet.
He’d never rehearsed this, so he was astonished that his speech ended exactly as the printer began to spill out pages.
“With my assumptions, the program has narrowed it down to fifteen stars, all widely separated. We can’t signal so many locations. We can bracket two, perhaps three closely grouped stars and still listen for answers. Remember, this probe will be unmanned. The less it must do on its own, the more likely it will succeed before it malfunctions.”
Colby stepped up beside Titus and took his elbow. Behind a broad grin she whispered, “Abbot never showed!” Aloud, she announced, “So you see, Dr. Shiddehara’s department is ready. Now if you’ll follow my most able assistants, you’ll tour the probe. We’ve made miraculous progress there, and we expect to bring it in under budget.
“I’ll see you all in the big conference hall tomorrow morning. Now, please excuse me. It’s been a very long day.” The group broke up, and Colby added, to Titus, “I’ve been on my feet for almost twenty hours, and I can’t remember the last time I had more than a nap. I’ve got to get some sleep. If you see Abbot, don’t let him talk to the reporters alone. They’ll cream him. He’s so innocent. But your main job is to tell us which of those catalogues is the real thing.”
“That may be impossible. I haven’t memorized the data.” Innocent? Abbot? Shit. “But I’ll do my best.”
As they watched the guides lining the reporters up for the excursion into vacuum, she added, swaying on her feet, “I’ll want you at that meeting tomorrow if you can authenticate one of those catalogues. If not, stay away.”
At that point, the doors opened, and everyone turned. Titus expected it would be Abbot, but the figure who stood there was shorter, older, and very human. Abner Gold!
He threw up both his arms and shouted for silence. “I have something to tell you. Don’t let them stop me!”
The Brink’s people surreptitiously closing in on him from all sides froze, looking at Colby. She stood, mouth agape.
Gold announced, “There’s a secret project here! They’ve got a perfectly preserved alien corpse and they’re planning to clone it and raise an alien child! Has any W.S. nation ratified such a an? Or have these mad scientists taken the moral decisions of our race into their own hands?”
A roar of questions and demands for proof filled the room. Gold told them which room in Biomed held the corpse. He tossed a memory cartridge to the reporter who had tried to deliver Titus’s catalogue. The man caught it, and Gold said, “In there is the whole story-the bills of landing for the cloning equipment, the names of those here insane enough to try such a thing, and,” he added with a triumphant glance at Colby, “the total amounts spent on this unauthorized scheme.”
Where could he have gotten all of that? Then the image came to him of Gold head to head with Ebony. Had she put him up to this? Or had Gold told her about it?
But if she knew Gold would blow the lid on the cloning project, and if her terrorist group knew his star catalogue was altered, then why would she have tried to assassinate Titus?
Of course! There was more than one group of terrorists. And they each wanted credit for scuttling the Project.
Surely, Ebony had found out about the cloning project from Gold only after she sabotaged the centrifuge. Having failed, she needed another line of attack, and Gold fell right into her lap. Gold wouldn’t have spoken to anyone until after Colby fired him. Not knowing Ebony was a terrorist, he wouldn’t have gone running to his weight-lifting instructor. But when he saw her next, she’d have pumped him until he spilled the whole story.
Colby climbed the steps by the door and held everyone’s attention as three Brink’s guards escorted Gold out. One of the reporters called, “Dr. Colby, the tour of the probe can wait. We must see Biomed and Cognitive Sciences. Now.”
“And what would you expect to see?” she challenged.
“Proof,” retorted a woman reporter.
“Nonsense,” said Colby. “You’d see what Dr. Gold described-a perfectly preserved alien corpse in a cryogenic chamber, in a small lab rigged for full sterility procedures, absolutely full. None of you will get into that room.”
There was an uproar. “We’re hiding nothing!” she lied. “We reported we have well-preserved tissue. Dr. Shiddehara mentioned how study of the alien eyes will yield clues to the spectrum of the alien’s sun. Skin tissue likewise. Chemical analysis of the flesh may reveal their sun’s composition for the planet on which they evolved probably formed from the same matter that condensed into their sun. Calculations are possible. But not if the tissue is contaminated. I repeat, for your safety and the potential reliability of our data, not one of you will enter the chamber.” She was sweating.
When the protests subsided, she relented. “You may, however, view the chamber through our monitors. Biomed personnel will answer your questions. You’ll find that we do have the capability to attempt a cloning. We couldn’t do our primary job without it because those who are expert in the necessary fields are also prominent in the field of clone research. No such project is, however, under way. No such facility has been set up. No such authorization has been given us. No such budget exists. You may check all that.”
“Then you deny the charge?”
“That we’re mad scientists? Certainly. Are you mad journalists? Do you deny that charge?”
“We’re angry journalists!” said a woman representing three science magazines. “We toured Biomed and you never showed us this corpse.”
“You saw every phase of the investigations currently under way. We’ve given you a coherent picture of the thrust of our research. I’d think experienced journalists would appreciate that. I would not expect anyone but sensation mongers to be diverted by the hysterical allegations of one deeply disturbed individual. Why don’t you continue your tour-which we’ve arranged to be ”east disruptive to our work-and later, check the facts behind this so-called evidence you’ve been given? Then I’ll answer your questions.
“But I will not tolerate an ever-escalating melee. This is a research facility, ladies and gentlemen, not a commodity trading pit. Those who wish to tour the probe are welcome to step into le corridor where cars await you. Others may catch the shuttle leaving for Luna Station in half an hour. It has room for the few who’ve completed the tour here. I will instruct the Brink’s guards to see you to the dock.”
She turned her back and went out. Someone met her in the doorway, and she waved them on into the lab.
Titus expected an uproar. But the rumble of discontent did not wax any louder as the reporters talked it over. He heard one group deciding not to accuse Colby of buying time to hide the evidence, but to send one of their own in as a spy. But no one volunteered. In the end, a group of science writers made for the electric carts that would take them to the airlock for the probe tour. By ones and twos, the others followed.
The person Colby had sent through approached Titus with two computer media cases, the two copies of his catalogue. “If you’ll just sign for these, Dr. Shiddehara, I’ll leave them with you. Dr. Colby says you’ll be through with them by the time of her conference in the morning. I’ll pick them up thgn. And we’ll be leaving guards here, if that’s all right with you. This is legal evidence for the moment.”
Shimon peered around Titus’s elbow. “Which is which?”
One was the copy the reporter had brought, and the other bore the Project logo.
As he initialed the security man’s electronic clipboard, Titus answered, “Good question.”
As the lab emptied, Titus stared at the two boxes now sitting on top of one of the consoles. Where to start?
He saw two guards parting Inea from a pair of reporters. She glanced his way as the guards herded her toward the door with the others. Titus called, “Go on home and get some sleep. You’ll have some real work tomorrow.” Frowning, she took a step toward him. He shook his head. “I’ll call you. Soon as I have anything. Promise.” Slowly, she turned away.
He watched her leave, wishing mightily he could go with her. But she probably preferred solitude to his company. Again, he realized Abbot had never shown up to discover Titus hadn’t Marked her. At least she won’t go looking for him!
He hefted the two data cases. “Well, now what?”
Shimon called across to a group leaving. “Lorie!”
A chubby redhead wearing thick glasses limped toward them. Shimon introduced her, “Titus, Lorie here is a software wizard in her spare time.” Quickly he briefed Lorie. “So how do we tell which one has been tampered with?”
“Good question,” observed Lorie. “You mean Dr. Colby expects you to do this by morning, Doctor?”
“She’s an administrator, not a programmer.”
“With all due respects, Doctor, I don’t think you’re enough of a programmer to get it done in time.”
“I agree. Can you help?”
She tapped one long fingernail on each of the boxes. “Whoever’s playing tricks would’ve altered the data on the Taurus region stars-not anywhere else. Right?”
“There’s unpublished data in here on those stars?”
“Megabytes of it. I study dozens of parameters on each object. I use an ultra-customized Carrington-Worthy database. Infinitely variable, so no two entries are alike.”
“I see. Do you have documentation on the customizing?”
“In my personal calculator.”
Lorie sat down at a nearby console and called it to life. “Patch in and shoot me all of it, plus anything else on the catalogue’s operation. I’ll bet the saboteurs didn’t know about the customizing. Next, I want an exhaustive list of everything in the Taurus region. And I need your index of attribute summaries. Then send out for enough sandwiches and coffee to last all night. Shimon, do you think you could stick around in case I need some help?” She raised her eyebrows at Titus as if to say, Are you still here?
“I’ll see to it all, Lorie,” answered Titus. And to Shimon, he added, “You’re both on double-time overtime.”
“I’ll stay,” replied Shimon, and began to connect the twin catalogue modules into the system while asking Lorie what she Wanted on her pizza.
Titus retired to his office and transferred the data Lorie Needed, then stuck with it as she demanded other items.
Nearly two hours later, he rocked back in his chair to watch her at her console, her intensity creating an aura of sexual beauty. She now had six monitors set up around her and was tapping away on three keyboards. Shimon was hovering in the background, loose cables festooned around his neck, ready to build her any configuration she wanted, his whole attitude betraying how attracted he was to her.
Idly, Titus pulled up Lorie’s records, discovering her last name was unpronounceable, and her credits in her field were staggering. Small wonder she’d tackle the absurd at a moment’s notice. She was simply having fun.
Finally, Titus relaxed enough to consider things in perspective. He made some notes in his Bell 990 on Ebony, listing the flimsy evidence against her, her physique, her political background, her Brink’s file entry showing lack of computer literacy, and that Gold was in one of her classes.
Gold. Gold! He sat bolt upright.
Assume Ebony was a terrorist and knew about the cloning project and about the sleeper. Destroy the sleeper, and make it look like the Project was covering up after Gold’s accusation. That would be the end of Project Hail.
It might already be too late.
Titus tore out of the lab.