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Chapter Six

Herlander Simões landed on the air car platform outside his comfortable town house apartment. One of the perks of his position as a Gamma Center project leader was a really nice place to live barely three kilometers from the Center itself. Green Pines was a much sought-after address here on Mesa, and the town house didn't come cheap. Which undoubtedly explained why most of Green Pines' inhabitants were upper mid-level and higher executives in one or another of Mesa's many business entities. A lot of the others were fairly important bureaucrats attached to the General Board which officially governed the Mesa System, despite the fact that Green Pines was a lengthy commute, even for a counter-gravity civilization, from the system capital of Mendel. Of course, Simões had realized long ago that having the long commute's inconvenience to bitch about to one's fellow government drones actually only made the address even more prestigious.

Simões had very little in common with people like that. In fact, he often felt a bit awkward if he found himself forced to make small talk with any of his neighbors, since he certainly couldn't tell them anything about what he did for a living. Still, the presence of all of those business executives and bureaucrats was useful when it came to explaining Green Pines' security arrangements. And the fact that those security arrangements were in place was very reassuring to people like Simões' superiors. They could hide the really important citizens of Green Pines in the underbrush of all those drones and still be confident they were protected.

Of course, he reflected as he climbed out of the air car and triggered the remote command for it to take itself off to the communal parking garage, their real protection was no one knew who they were.

He chuckled at the thought, then gave himself a shake and opened his briefcase. He extracted the gaily wrapped package, closed the briefcase again, tucked the package under his left arm, and headed for the lift bank.

* * *

"I'm home!" Simões called out five minutes later as he stepped into the apartment's foyer.

There was no answer, and Simões frowned. Today was Francesca's birthday, and they were supposed to be taking her out to one of her favorite restaurants. It was Tuesday, which meant it had been her mother's turn to pick her up from school, and he knew Francesca had been eagerly anticipating the evening. Which, given his daughter's personality, meant she should have been waiting right inside the door with all the patience of an Old Earth shark who'd just scented blood. True, he'd gotten home a good hour earlier than expected, but still. . . .

"Harriet! Frankie!

Still no answer, and his frown deepened.

He set the package carefully on an end table in the foyer and moved deeper into the spacious, two hundred fifty-square meter apartment, heading for the kitchen. Herlander was a mathematician and theoretical astrophysicist, and his wife Harriet—their friends often referred to them as H&H—was also a mathematician, although she was assigned to weapons research. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, Harriet had a habit of leaving written notes stuck to the refrigerator rather than using her personal minicomp to mail them to him. It was one of what he considered her charming foibles, and he supposed he couldn't really blame her. Given how much time she spent with electronically formatted data, there was something appealing about relying on old-fashioned handwriting and paper.

But there was no note on the refrigerator this evening, and he felt a prickle of something that hadn't yet quite had time to turn into worry. It was headed that way, though, and he slid onto one of the tall chairs at the kitchen dining bar while he looked around at the emptiness.

If anything had happened, she would've let you know, idiot, he told himself firmly. It's not like she didn't know exactly where you were!

He drew a deep breath, made himself sit back in the chair, and admitted to himself what was really worrying him.

Like a great many—indeed, the vast majority—of the alpha line pairings the Long-Range Planning Board arranged, Herlander and Harriet had been steered together because of the way their genomes complemented one another. Despite that, they'd had no children of their own yet. At fifty-seven, Herlander was still a very young man for a third-generation prolong recipient—especially one whose carefully improved body would probably have been good for at least a couple of centuries even without the artificial therapies. Harriet was a few T-years older than he was, but not enough to matter, and the two of them had been far too deeply buried in their careers to comfortably free up the amount of time required to properly rear children. They'd planned on having several biologicals of their own—all star line couples were encouraged to do that, in addition to the cloned pairings the Board produced—but they'd also planned on waiting several more years, at a minimum.

Although the LRPB obviously expected good things out of their children, no one had pushed them to accelerate their schedule. Valuable as their offspring would probably prove, especially with the LRBP's inevitable subtle improvements, it had been made pretty clear to them that the work both of them were engaged upon was of greater immediate value.

Which was why they'd been quite surprised when they were called in by Martina Fabre, one of the Board's senior members. Neither one of them had ever even met Fabre, and there'd been no explanation for the summons, so they'd felt more than a little trepidation when they reported for the appointment.

But Fabre had quickly made it clear they weren't in any sort of trouble. In fact, the silver-haired geneticist (who had to be at least a hundred and ten, standard, Simões had realized) had seemed gently but genuinely amused by their apparent apprehension.

"No, no!" she'd said with a chuckle. "I didn't call you in to ask where your first child is. Obviously, we do expect the two of you to procreate—that is why we paired you up, after all! But there's still time for you to make your contribution to the genome."

Simões had felt himself relaxing, but she'd shaken her head and wagged an index finger at him.

"Don't get too comfortable, Herlander," she'd warned him. "We may not be expecting you to procreate just yet, but that doesn't mean we don't have a little something we do want out of you."

"Yes, Ma'am," he'd replied, much more meekly than he usually spoke to people. Somehow, Fabre had made him feel like he was back in kindergarten.

"Actually," she'd let her chair come upright and leaned forward, folding her arms on her desk, her manner suddenly rather more serious, "we really do have a problem we think you two can help us with."

"A . . . problem, Doctor?" Harriet had asked when Fabre paused for a handful of seconds. She hadn't quite been able to keep a trace of lingering apprehension out of her voices, and Fabre had obviously noticed it.

"Yes." The geneticist had grimaced, then sighed. "As I say, neither of you were even remotely involved in creating it, but I'm hoping you may be able to help us out with solving it."

Harriet's expression had been puzzled, and Fabre had waved one hand in a reassuring gesture.

"I'm sure both of you are aware that the Board pursues a multi-pronged strategy. In addition to the standard pairings such as we arranged in your case, we also work with more . . . tightly directed lines, shall we say. In cases such as your own, we encourage variation, explore the possibilities for enhancement of randomly occurring traits and developments which might not occur to us when we model potential outcomes. In other cases, we know precisely what it is we're trying to accomplish, and we tend to do more in vitro fertilization and cloning on those lines."

She'd paused until both Simões had nodded in understanding. What Herlander had realized, although he wasn't certain Harriet had, was that quite a bit of that "directed" development had been carried out under cover of Manpower Incorporated's slave breeding programs, which made the perfect cover for almost anything the LRPB might have been interested in exploring.

"For the past few decades, we seem to have been hitting a wall in one of our in vitro alpha lines," Fabre had continued. "We've identified the potential for what amounts to an intuitive mathematical genius, and we've been attempting to bring that potential into full realization. I realize both of you are extraordinarily gifted mathematicians in your own rights. For that matter, both of you test well up into the genius range in that area. The reason I mention this is that we believe the potential for this particular genome represents an intuitive mathematical ability which would be at least an order of magnitude greater than your own. Obviously, that kind of capability would be of enormous advantage to us if only because of its consequences for the sort of work I know you two are already engaged upon. Long-term, of course, the ability to inject it into the genetic pool as a reliably replicatable trait would be of even greater value to the maturation of the species as a whole."

Herlander had glanced at Harriet for a moment and seen the mirror of his own intensely interested expression on her face. Then they'd both looked back at Fabre.

"The problem in this case," the geneticist had continued, "is that all of our efforts to date have been . . . less than fully successful, shall we say. I'll go ahead and admit that we still don't have anything like the degree of understanding we wish we had where designed levels of intelligence are concerned, despite the degree of hubris some of my own colleagues seem to feel upon occasion. Still, we feel like we're on the right track in this instance. Unfortunately, our results to date fall into three categories.

"The most frequent result is a child of about average intelligence for one of our alpha lines, which is to say substantially brighter than the vast majority of normals or even the bulk of our other star lines. That's hardly a bad result, but it's obviously not the one we're looking for, because while the child may have an interest in mathematics, there's no sign of the capability we're actually trying to enhance. Or, if it's there at all, it's at best only partially realized."

"Less often, but more often than we'd like, the result is a child who's actually below the median line for our alpha lines. Many of them would be quite suitable for a gamma line, or for that matter for the general Mesan population, but they're not remotely of the caliber we're looking for."

"And finally," her expression had turned somber, "we get a relatively small number of results where all early testing suggests the trait we're trying to bring out is present. It's in there, waiting. But there's an instability factor, as well."

"Instability?" It had been Herlander's turn to ask the question when Fabre paused this time, and the geneticist had nodded heavily.

"We lose them," she'd said simply. The Simões must have looked perplexed, because she'd grimaced again . . . less happily than before.

"They do fine for the first three or four T-years," she'd said. "But then, somewhere in the fifth year, we start to lose them to something like an extreme version of the condition which used to be called autism."

This time it had been obvious neither of the younger people sitting on the other side of her desk had a clue what she was talking about, because she'd smiled with a certain bitterness.

"I'm not surprised you didn't recognize the term, since it's been a while since we've had to worry about it, but autism was a condition which affected the ability to interact socially. It was eliminated from the Beowulf population long before we left for Mesa, and we really don't have a great deal in even the professional literature about it, anymore, far less in our more general information bases. For that matter, we're not at all sure what we're looking at here is what would have been defined as autism back in the dark ages. For one thing, according to the literature we do have—which is extremely limited, since most of it's over eight hundred years old—autism usually began to manifest by the time a child was three, and this is occurring substantially later. Onset also seems to be much more sudden and abrupt than anything we've been able to find in the literature. But autism was marked by impaired social interaction and communication and by restricted and repetitive behavior, and that's definitely what we're seeing here.

"In this case, however, we think there are some significant differences, as well—that we're not talking about the same condition, but rather one which has certain gross parallels. It seems from the literature that, like many conditions, autism manifested itself in several different ways and in different degrees of severity. By comparison with what our research has turned up about autism, what we're observing in these children would appear to fall at the extremely severe end of the spectrum. One point of similarity with extreme autism is that, unlike its milder form and other learning disorders, new communication skills don't simply stop developing; they're lost. These children regress. They lose communication skills they already had, they lose the ability to focus on their environment or interact with it, and they retreat into a sort of shutdown condition. In the more extreme cases, they become almost totally uncommunicative and nonresponsive within a couple of T-years."

She'd paused again, then shrugged.

"We think we're making progress, but to be honest, there's an element on the Board which thinks we should simply go ahead and abandon the project completely. Those of us who disagree with that position have been looking for a potential means of breaking the existing paradigm. We've come to the conclusion—or, at least, some of us have—that what's really needed here is a two-pronged approach. We've very carefully analyzed the genetic structure of all of the children in the entire line and, as I say, we think we've made substantial progress in correcting the genes themselves, the blueprint for the hardware, if you will. But we're also of the opinion that we're probably dealing with environmental elements that affect the operating software, as well. Which is what brings you to my office today.

"All our evaluations confirm that the two of you are a well-adjusted, balanced couple. Your basic personalities complement one another well, and you're clearly well-suited to one another and to creating a stable home environment. Both of you also have the sort of affinity for mathematics we're trying to produce in this line, if not on the level we're looking for. Both of you have very successfully applied that ability in your daily work, and both of you have demonstrated high levels of empathy. What we'd like to do—what we intend to do—is to place one of our clones with you to be raised by you. Our hope is that by placing this child with someone who has the same abilities, who can provide the guidance—and the understanding—someone intended to be a prodigy requires, we'll be able to . . . ease it through whatever critical process is going off the rails when we lose them. As I say, we've made significant improvements at the genetic level; now we need to provide the most beneficial, supportive, and nurturing environment we can, as well."

* * *

And that was how Francesca had entered the Simões' life. She didn't look a thing like either of her parents, although that was scarcely unheard of on Mesa. Herlander had sandy hair, hazel eyes, and what he thought of as reasonably attractive features, but he wasn't especially handsome, by any means. One thing the Mesan Alignment had very carefully eschewed was the sort of "cookie cutter" physical similarity which was so much a part of the Scrags descended from the genetic "super soldiers" of Old Earth's Final War. Physical attractiveness was part of almost any alpha or beta line, but physical diversity was also emphasized as part of a very conscious effort to avoid producing a readily identifiable appearance, and Harriet had black hair and sapphire blue eyes. She was also (in Herlander's obviously unbiased opinion) a lot more attractive than he was.

They were very much of a height, right at one hundred and eighty centimeters, despite the dissimilarity in their coloring, but it was obvious Francesca would always be small and petite. Herlander doubted that she was ever going to be much over a hundred and fifty-five centimeters, and she had brown hair, brown eyes, and an olive complexion quite different from either of her parents.

All of which only made her an even more fascinating creature, as far as Simões was concerned. He understood that fathers were genetically hardwired to dote on girl children, of course. That was the way the species was designed, and the LRPB hadn't seen any reason to change that particular trait. Despite that, however, he was firmly convinced that any unbiased observer would have been forced to admit that his daughter was the smartest, most charming, and most beautiful little girl who had ever existed. It was self-evident. And, as he'd pointed out to Harriet on more than one occasion, the fact that they'd made no direct genetic contribution to her existence obviously meant he was a disinterested and unbiased observer.

Somehow, Harriet had not been impressed by his logic.

He knew both of them had approached the prospect of parenthood, especially under the circumstances, with more than a little trepidation. He'd expected it to be hard to risk letting himself care for the girl, knowing as much as they'd been told about the problems the Board had encountered with this particular genome. He'd discovered, however, that he'd failed to reckon with the sheer beauty of a child—his child, however she'd become that—and the complete and total trust she'd extended to her parents. The first time she'd had one of the childhood fevers not even a Mesan star line was totally immune to, and she'd stopped her fretful crying and melted absolutely limply in his arms when he'd picked her up, nestled down against him, and dropped into sleep at last, he'd become her slave, and he knew it.

They'd both been aware of the fact that they were supposed to be providing the love and nurture to help ease Francesca through the development process, as Fabre had put it. They'd been prepared to do just that; what they hadn't been prepared for was how inevitable Francesca herself had made it all. Her fourth and fifth years had been particularly tense and trying for them as she entered what Fabre had warned them was the greatest danger period, based on previous experience. But Francesca had breezed past the critical threshold, and they'd felt themselves relaxing steadily for the last couple of years.

And yet . . . and yet as Herlander Simões sat in his kitchen, wondering where his wife and daughter were, he discovered that he hadn't relaxed completely, after all.

He was just reaching for his com when it sounded with Harriet's attention signal. He flicked his finger to accept the call, and Harriet's voice sounded in his ear.


There was something about her tone, he thought. Something . . . strained.

"Yes. I just got home a few minutes ago. Where are you guys?"

"We're at the clinic, dear," Harriet said.

"The clinic?" Simões repeated quickly. "Why? What's wrong?"

"I'm not sure anything is wrong," she replied, but multiple mental alarms were going off in his brain now. She sounded like someone who was afraid that if she admitted some dire possibility it would come to pass.

"Then why are you at the clinic?" he asked quietly.

"They screened me just after I picked her up at school and asked me to bring her down. Apparently . . . apparently they picked up a couple of small anomalies in her last evaluation."

Simões' heart seemed to stop beating.

"What sort of anomalies?" he demanded.

"Nothing enormously off profile. Dr. Fabre's looked at the results herself, and she assures me that so far, at least, we're still within parameters. We're just . . . drifting a little bit to one side. So they wanted me to bring her in for a more complete battery of evaluations. I didn't expect you to be home this early, and I didn't want to worry you at work, but when I realized we were going to be late, I decided to screen you. I didn't realize you were already at home until you answered."

"I won't be for long," he told her. "If you're going to be there for a while, the least I can do is hop in the car and come join you. And Frankie."

"I'd like that," she told him softly.

"Well, I'll be there in a few minutes," he said, equally softly. "Bye, honey."

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