To Titus’s surprise, his father recoiled. “Titus, what in the-” Cloaking his words, he swore. “Child, you don’t know your own strength! What do you think you’re doing?”
Titus’s greatest efforts had never before produced such an effect in Abbot. “I-I.”
Perplexed, Abbot inspected Inea, adding, “You’re that involved and you haven’t Marked her?”
Around them, everyone was staring disinterestedly into the packing case. Titus pulled himself together. “She’s not mine,” he answered nonchalantly, cloaking as well. He raised his voice and ordered in clear, “Inea, check the observatory first and I’ll be right with you. Okay?”
She shrugged and shoved her toolbox into a corner. “Sure, she answered, but he saw her glance over her shoulder at Abbot as she went toward the glass enclosure.
“See?” Titus pointed out. “As you taught me, when you don’t need Influence, don’t use it.”
Abbot shook his head, and Titus was almost sure he’d covered his slip. Inea now seemed to be no one special, just useful.
“Titus, do you want my help with the others or not?”
“I’d consider it a favor.” Abbot didn’t seem to think he needed help. Titus wondered if he’d gained power from the Catholic talisman, for he had felt wonderful ever since.
Abbot raised his voice with Influence. “If we’re going to be up and running this month, we’d better get to work.”
Titus added his Influence, singling out individuals and assigning jobs, diverting attention from the crate.
Suzy Langton hefted the top of the crate. “I’ll just seal up this stray case and take it back.”
“Oh, that won’t be necessary,” Titus interrupted hastily, and Abbot joined with, “Absolutely not necessary.”
She stopped, the awkward top held across her chest. “Well no, it’s not necessary. But I ought to do it anyway.”
Abbot glanced at Titus, who was keenly aware that Inea might be watching, then took the top from Langton. “I know who it belongs to. I’ll take care of it. You wouldn’t waste government time going out of your way, would you?”
The Brink’s guards shook their heads like kindergarteners agreeing with their teacher. Abbot had them totally under control. But he was working gingerly. They dared not create an illusion that was blatantly incongruous, for with time, these people would remember bits and snatches, worry at them, and compare notes. More than once in their long history on Earth, luren had been caught by just such human tenacity.
Titus pointed out, “There’s no reason for you folks to wait here. Get on back to your more important work.”
Perplexed, Langton hesitantly agreed. Abbot made a show of resealing the crate, grinning confidently at her over his shoulder. At last she led her crew out, seeming satisfied.
“Thanks,” said Titus, as he removed the lid again, still unsure why Abbot had helped except that it would be awkward for all luren if a human analyzed the “B&J Additives.”
“Don’t mention it.” Abbot eyed the observatory where Inea forked. “Though since you have her-and don’t tell me you don’t!-I can’t see why you want this garbage.”
“I don’t take blood from humans anymore.”
“Then let me have her.”
“Well, I took Mirelle. I shouldn’t cut in on you every time. Still, I helped you. Since you’re not using her-”
“That’s a bit of a steep price for such trivial, if timely, assistance. Here, take a couple of packets instead.” He held his breath, hoping Abbot would refuse as usual. He needed all of it himself, and Abbot’s only reason for accepting would be to cripple Titus’s efforts to oppose him.
“Oh, Titus, where did I go wrong with you? You were so promising! But you’re young, maybe it’s just a phase.” He shrugged. “Keep your packets. When you’re tired of them, let me know. I’ve a couple of choice items I’d be willing to share. In a small community, it minimizes the risks.”
“No thank you, Father. I can handle my own if I must.”
Abbot scrutinized him again. “Yes, surprisingly enough, I think you can now. Here, let me help you get these packets into your office. You know, they must have been shipped within hours of our switching your bag in Quito? Connie must have known the minute we did it. She’s pretty sharp, that one. Not that you’re turning out to be so dull, either.”
What is he up to? thought Titus as he gathered an armload. The sooner the packets disappeared, the less likely anyone would be to remember them. When they’d finished stuffing the packets into drawers in Titus’s office, he watched Abbot reseal the crate and haul it out the door.
Then he spent the rest of the shift pondering Abbot’s behavior. He was acting as if Titus were no longer a threat to his mission. Hoping that wasn’t so, Titus resolved to destroy another transmitter component as soon as possible.
It wouldn’t be easy. Titus had been tracking his father all over the station when he could. Sometimes Abbot noticed him, sometimes he didn’t-or pretended not to. For all his efforts, Titus still didn’t know where Abbot had hidden the six pieces of his transmitter, or the rebuilt piece. Surely he’s already rebuilt it.
By now, Abbot, under cover of repairing Titus’s system, could have assembled the transmitter. He might even have planted it within the shell of the probe. That would account his confidence, for Titus didn’t have clearance to go out to the probe hangar, and so far he hadn’t gone out by using Influence.
However, placing the transmitter so long before launch would increase the chance of a human finding it, so Titus doubted he’d done it yet. His confidence was probably just a ploy to keep Titus off balance, to keep him asking irrelevant questions and wasting energy seeking answers, diverting his attention. But from what? The sleeping luren? The cloning project? The language project? What exactly had Abbot recovered from Kylyd’s recorders?
Why did Abbot want the computer fixed so fast? To pirate time on it for himself? Titus made a mental note to set some traps in his system. If he were clever, Titus might be able to bleed off Abbot’s data while Abbot thought he was getting away with pirating. But that was a longshot. Nobody beat Abbot in a computer duel. Still, Titus would try. He’d beaten his father in other ways he’d never expected to.
But the nagging question was why did Abbot want Titus supplied with blood? To keep him from prospecting among the humans?
Titus straightened up from examining a technician’s work. Oblivious to the technician’s apprehensive expression, he watched Abbot checking connections. Even way across the lab, the power of him throbbed through Titus. Abbot wasn’t starving. And suddenly, it hit him. Abbot didn’t want him to find out who was on his string.
A shock washed through Titus as his mind leaped into high gear, leaving logic behind. Abbot knew he had broken into Mirelle’s file. Abbot assumed Titus wanted to know what Abbot had learned from her. His feigned confidence was to focus Titus’s attention away from Mirelle and Abbot’s other stringers, to make him wonder why Abbot felt he’d already beaten Titus.
It made sense, but didn’t quite fit Abbot’s devious nature.
He knows me! He’s always manipulated me. All at once, he recalled Abbot staring at Inea then scrutinizing Titus. It came to him with crystal clarity. It`s his unMarked that count! He had to find them and check their files.
That might be more important than the transmitter. After all, the probe would not go for months yet; the sleeper could be wakened anytime.
Absently, Titus praised the apprehensive technician’s work while his plans gelled. He’d mount an all-out, obvious effort to find another transmitter part, and, in the process, he’d sift the station’s population for Abbot’s humans.
Later, as Abbot finally took his official departure from the lab he warned Titus, cloaking his words, “Look to that girl of yours. You may have to silence her whether you want to or not. I don’t like the way she’s been watching us.”
Titus glanced at where Inea was sitting tailor fashion before an access hatch jigsawing three boards into a space barely big enough for two. “I’ll tend to it, don’t worry.”
“I do worry. Listen, Titus, Mark her. There are two of us here. If you want her, Mark her.” He sounded friendly.
It seemed, for an instant, like reasonable advice. Then he met Inea’s eyes. Never! She’s not a possession, not an object. He didn’t want a stringer, he wanted a wife, and that was something Abbot would never understand. “I’ll keep her quiet.”
The moment the door closed behind Abbot, Inea dropped her task and came to Titus, demanding, “What in the world– well, the moon-has been going on here all day?”
“What do you think?”
“Espionage. For some reason, you’re afraid of that man. I think he knows you’ve been spying.”
Titus chuckled. “Spying?” Diabolical woman!
“The Project’s a bone of contention among the Sovereignties.” She cocked her head. “What did you smuggle in right under the Brink’s guards’ noses? Plastic explosive?”
He threw his head back and laughed. Everyone looked at him. He waved them off. “She has a great sense of humor!
To Inea, he said, “Come into my office.” He led the way, blurring their exit in everyone else’s minds.
Even before she’d closed the door, Titus whirled and hissed indignantly, “Don’t you think I have better sense than to fool with explosives with all that vacuum out there?”
“You could plant it on the probe-set to blow it up out in space. According to the news, there are idiots who’d do it if they could, and rob all mankind of this chance. How do I know you aren’t one of those? People change.”
Hurt more than he could believe, he turned away, clenching his fists. “I’ll show you, if you’ll promise just to believe your eyes. Believe in me just that much, and I’ll show you what I smuggled in.” Abbot will kill me.
“I guess I owe you that much.”
He dug into his bottom desk drawer, found a packet, and tossed it to her, proud of his mastery of the gravity as it arced directly into her hands. She kneaded the packet and read the label. “I don’t understand.”
“False label. That’s the blood substitute I live on.”
She tallied her observations of him. “You’ve been starving yourself, waiting for this shipment!”
He shook his head. “Just short rations. I was worried, though. Another week-” He shrugged.
“Who sent it to you?”
“Your kind have infiltrated the whole Project!”
“One shipping clerk does not a spy ring make.”
“You going to start a witch hunt for my friend?”
She thought about that. Her answer, when it came, was low voiced but certain. “No.”
“Good. Then I’ll introduce you when we get back.”
She hefted the packet of cloned blood. “I hope your friend shares your dietary inclinations.”
There was a knock on the door. Titus beckoned and Inea tossed the packet back to him. Stuffing it into the drawer, he called, “Come in!”
It was Shimon, carrying a small black box with cables on both ends. “Titus, I was checking the empty crate before trashing it and I found this in the bottom packing-oh, Inea, I’m sorry to interrupt-” He flushed, and Titus realized that the delay in responding to the knock implied he’d interrupted an intimate moment.
Inea said, “That’s all right. What have you found?”
“Wish I knew.” He slid it across the desk to Titus. “No manufacturer’s mark, no label. Looks like one of Abbot’s fabrications. But he labels his stuff.”
Not Abbot’s fabrication, Connie’s! A replacement for the communicator Abbot ruined. Somehow, Abbot missed it. And Abbot thought Connie was swift in getting the blood here! She must have sent this before Abbot wrecked mine.
Titus glanced at Inea. He didn’t want to manipulate Shimon in front of her. Without Influence, he said, “It’s probably not important. I’ll query Luna Station and take care of it.”
“Well, you’re so busy. And I’m curious. Why don’t I handle it for you?” He reached across the desk.
Titus snatched up the box. “Oh, it’s my job to hassle with stuff like this. You’ve more urgent things to do.”
“It’s no hassle. My job is winding down. We’ll finish installing and testing tomorrow and be ready for a run by the next day. But your job is just beginning-”
There was no choice. Backing his words with Influence, narrowed and aimed only at Shimon, Titus said, “Since we got all the parts we expected, this is probably just a piece of trash somebody threw into the crate by accident. You did right to bring it to me. I’ll take care of it. You’ve more important work.” Connie would be ashamed of me. I’ve made a complete hash of fielding both her shipments!
Very slowly, Shimon recited, “I-have more important work. Yes.” To himself, he added, “Ken. Yesh li avodah.”
“You’ve been doing excellent work,” said Titus with Influence. “You’ll get a citation, and I’ll put you up for a raise because you never give me any arguments, just results.”
Shimon withdrew his hand. “No arguments.”
Titus smiled. “Thank you, Shimon.”
“Yes, sir.” Turning, he nodded to Inea and left.
As the door closed, she breathed, “My God.”
“I didn’t want to do that to him, but-”
“You didn’t have his consent.”
“What is that thing?”
He told her a half-truth. “Part of my communications link. So I can signal when I need more. blood. I didn’t know it Was in that crate. Shimon shouldn’t have found it.” She stared at him as if he were a new sort of bug. “I didn’t harm him. He feels very proud of himself. And I will put him in for a citation and a raise. He’s earned it.” As she considered that, he groped for a diversion. “If I let you taste my concoction, will that prove it all to you?”
Her eyes shifted to the closed door, then back to Titus. “After what you did to that stubborn Israeli, yeah, I think so. If that stuff is really blood-”
“It’s pretty close.” He thought of the packets hidden about the office. Abbot might expect him to leave most of it here because there was too much to carry in one trip. He might plan to return and abscond with the rest, putting the lie to Titus’s theories. He weighed the matter, and decided he’d rather have the blood than proof of Abbot’s intentions. Besides, he didn’t want to risk Maintenance finding it.
He offered, “Help me carry these home, and I’ll show you how it makes up into a very good imitation of real blood.”
He found four large net bags and lined them with spare clothing, then stuffed them with packets, putting the black box, which was useless until the computer was up, in one bag. They’d seem to be carrying laundry, which would reinforce Shimon’s impression that they were lovers. The rumor would be all over the station within three days. And coming right after he’d demonstrated to Abbot his control of Inea, it would reinforce the impression he wanted Abbot to have, that he was only using Inea, casually establishing his “cover” as a human, just as Abbot had taught him.
Knowing Titus the way he did, Abbot would never believe he’d expose a human he cared for by establishing any public connection between them. And ordinarily, Titus wouldn’t. But e had to play out the charade he’d started. Later, he could appear to “drop” Inea, thus blending in with the social tides of the humans around them. He just had to be sure not to give Abbot any more reason to suspect.
“Real blood,” muttered Inea as they packed. “There’s a difference between this stuff and real blood?”
“Yes, but it can be supplemented. I’ll show you.”
By the time they reached his apartment, he was almost faint with a hunger made acute by the promise of a complete meal. He had to conceal his hand as he opened the door, for his fingers were shaking with his need for haste.
But when the door opened, they were bombarded with sound. “Oh, I left the vidcom on! Turn it off, will you, please?”
As he went to the sink, Inea drifted to the vidcom and studied the controls uncertainly. Hers was different. “The silver stud on the far right!” he called, drawing water into his pitcher and putting it into the microwave to heat.
“Wait a minute!” she said. “Come look at this.”
He was in absolutely no mood for the news, but he went. The screen showed a milling throng-a riot in progress. As Titus came into the zone where the sound focused, he made out the words. “. anti-Hail terrorists in Africa today. In London, the Humanists claim credit for the catastrophic breakdown of Project Hail’s astrogational computer. Titus Shiddehara, the department head in charge of that unique computer, could not be reached, but Dr. Colby, Hail’s on-site director, claims the breakdown was due to a defect in the innovative hardware, not sabotage.
“Elsewhere: United Europe. World Sovereignties Police have caught an alleged assassin headed for Project Hail. The man, a native of Kenya, had obtained a plumber’s job on the Project with a false identity. Director Carol Colby was identified as his target.
“Soviet Republics. Chief Astronomer Arkady Abramovitch has testified that he alone is responsible for the attempted sabotage of all eight broadcast antenna arrays on the moon. According to Abramovitch, there is no international conspiracy to stop Project Hail. His objective, he claims, was to demonstrate how lax security left the solar system’s entire communications network vulnerable in the face of the potential alien invasion Project Hail is inviting. Abramovitch claims he never intended the bombs to go off.
“This just in from Lesser Houston.”
The scene shifted to dusty buildings scintillating in the Texas sun and cut to a woman at a mahogany desk. A sign appeared. “Project Hail Chair, Dr. Irene Nagel.”
“Dr. Nagel, what would happen to Project Hail if the assassination attempt aimed at Colby had succeeded?”
“Not much. Dr. Colby’s ability as an administrator is nowhere more evident than in the fact that she is very replaceable. Her work is organized so that any of several qualified people could step into her shoes instantly.”
“Assassinating the director would not stop the project?”
The reporter cut her off. “Thank you, Dr. Nagel. Now back to Paris for the weather.”
Inea punched the off stud. “What do you make of that?”
“Fanatics will stop at nothing.”
“Think! If the terrorists now believe Carol isn’t a good target, where’ll they strike next? At an irreplaceable scientist-” Her expression shifted to wild surmise. “You’re not an assassin, are you? That isn’t why you went after that Brink’s woman-”
The microwave bleeped. Testily, he snapped, “You think! If I wanted to stop this project, I could just quit. I’m more likely to be the next target! How many others do you know who can do my job here?”
She answered the rhetorical question quite seriously, “The only other who had anything like your expertise in finding stars with planets-stars which might have spawned life on their planets-was Emil Tuttenheim, and he died nearly a decade ago.”
He nodded, “Poverty stricken and depressed because his work attracted no funding. Emil was my teacher-and my idol. I’m sorry I yelled at you.”
“That’s all right. I know you’re no assassin, whatever else you may or may not be. I don’t know why I said that.”
He nodded his acceptance and turned to the microwave. “Look over here.” He extracted the pitcher and thrust it into her hands. “Just over body temperature.” Setting it on the counter, he opened a packet, dumped the crystals into the water, and stirred.
The odor almost broke his imposed calm. He fumbled down two glasses and filled one. Raising it, he said, “Just to prove it’s not poisoned.” He downed it all in one draft, trying not to let his ecstasy seem too apparent. Then he half filled the other glass and handed it to her, hoping she wouldn’t drink any. He wanted to lick up every drop.
She held it close to her chest, wrapping both hands around it as if it were brandy, sniffed, wrinkled her nose, then tipped a bit into her mouth. With a strangled noise, she said, “It’s awful. But I guess it tastes like blood.”
When she handed the glass back to him, a thrill danced up his arm. The blood had absorbed a hint of her ectoplasm. It was the best known medium for the nonmaterial substance luren called ectoplasm. As a scientist, he was loath to use the term. It shouldn’t exist-but it did. And he needed it as much as he needed blood. The dead, freeze-dried blood would sponge up ectoplasm from any human it touched. He savored every drop, forgetting to control himself, for, charged even faintly, it was more satisfying than any elixir of the gods.
When it was gone, he noticed her watching, and wondered if he dared. His hunger finally overwhelmed his judgment. He refilled his glass and handed it to her. “Hold it to you. Taste it again if you want.”
“Why? It tastes like blood.”
“There are differences. This doesn’t come from a human. It isn’t alive. I need that life as you need vitamins as well as calories. Please. It will cost you nothing.”
Self-consciously, she cradled the glass, sniffing at it, then examined him over the rim.
Very gradually, her whole being became, suffused with a glow that sent tremors of fear-laced pleasure through him. No human had ever looked at him like this before. But it was instantly addictive. He couldn’t live without it now.
“Oh, dear God, Titus, what I’ve put you through! I’m so sorry! I didn’t know.”
She believes! He dared to move closer, drawn like a moth to a flame. Dreading yet another rejection, he watched in dismay as his hands rose to cup her cheeks. But she didn’t shrink from him.
Hardly aware, he lowered his lips to the glass and drank from between her two hands. It wasn’t the same as taking human blood. Yet it was enough.
He raised his head, not hiding what she had done to him. He couldn’t speak. He had only his hands to convey to her the depth of his reverence and surrender.
But she seemed to understand. For one long held breath, he thought she was going to kiss him. He was already aroused beyond bearing remembering that one voluntary kiss she had bestowed upon him. Then she shuddered and drew back.
“If you’ll brush your teeth, I’ll kiss you.”
He lifted the glass from her fingers. “And more than kiss? Promise me more.”
“More. Everything. Hurry.”
When he returned, she was in his bed, wearing nothing but a curl of sheet shading her breasts. Absently, he shed his clothes on the way. Scooping her to him, he sank into the ecstasy of it, and discovered his own driving urgency. She matched him move for move, as if she too hungered. He’d never had such a human, and it brought him to himself. Inea!
He sought control. No. She has given me what no other has ever freely offered-not just ectoplasm but love. This is for her.
“What’s wrong? Don’t I please you?”
She’s never been with a man who cared for her pleasure! The realization was like a cold shock. Oh, Inea! Humans could use humans more cruelly than luren ever did. He rolled her over to her stomach and whispered in her ear. “Remember you told me if it could be better with me than with. a human? I’d I said I’d make it special for you. Well, I will.”
He went to work, using the skills garnered over twenty years of more casual encounters, less fully informed consent. He’d used Influence to cast a glamour for his women, but he always made sure that what he took and what he gave balanced out, and in the process he’d learned the intricacies of the female response. Regarding Inea as a strange kind of virgin who didn’t know the power of her own body, he used his vampire senses to track her responses, but never focused Influence. What was between them would be real.
When he eased her onto her back, she was flushed and beautiful, hypnotized by her inward sensations. But she touched his arousal, feeling his moist tremors as he fought his body. “Why are you doing this to yourself?”
That she would be so mystified nearly tore his heart in half. “Because you’ve earned the glory due a woman.”
She pulled him down. “But I’m ready.”
“No you’re not. Not by half. I don’t enjoy taking a woman before she’s ready.” Never mind that his human body wanted it and no more nonsense.
She kissed a line up his abdomen, threatening to drive him over the edge. Her whispered words tickled his flesh. “Let’s just see how ready I am.”
She moved and his sensitive organ was almost enveloped before he realized he couldn’t endure much of that and still bring her to a higher pitch. He pushed her away with a gasp.
“Titus, what is the matter with you!”
Her sharp frustration bit into him, and nothing but whole truth would do. “I want this to be perfect for you. Everything between us is real-and I’ll never lie to you. Never. I said what you gave me would cost you nothing-and so it shall be. If you let me do this for you properly, all I took when you let me drink will be restored and more. Otherwise, if you give to me repeatedly, you’ll grow weak and depressed, and I’ll hate myself. Even with just this once, you’d feel a drain on your vitality.
Her features, wiped clean of the years by her rapture, froze as a new reality intruded. “You really are a vampire.”
He kissed the base of her neck and traced a line up to her lips. “Yes. I live in your love and wither without it. Let me show you the gift I have for you, if only you’ll be patient enough to receive it. Please. Let me.”
“If you don’t hurry, you’ll have to start over.”
He let his kiss tell her how much further they could go together. He took his time, following the body currents, stimulating each and every bit of skin and deep muscle, until the currents of orgasm would move unobstructed by tension. As he worked his last devotions, he felt the intense surge of ectoplasm, as if energy had come into her from nowhere and she had made it living substance for him to feed on.
It was magic. He dared think no further than that. “Now, you’re ready!”
In that deep penetration and matching of even deeper rhythms, his body soaked up the excess substance she poured forth, and the liberating joy of it drove him over the top and into the headlong plunge of release.
It was the greatest perfection he had ever achieved.