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"Told ya," Joat said.

"Yes," Seld Chaundra said, turning his head aside.

The transit levels of SSS-900-C were still chaotic and barely-suppressed panic was rampant. Squads of weeping children pressed by, herded by an adult with a child in her arms. A caterpillar of toddlers held on to a cord which was tethered to a few protesting sub-adolescents.

Joat and Seld were off to one side in the shadows of an access bay. There were many at the upper globe's north pole, what with the pumping and docking facilities and the multiple feeds needed. The housekeeping programs were laboring overtime, pumping odors of pine, sea-salt and wildflowers into the air. It still smelled of vomit and unchanged diapers and fear, and the baffles only muted the roar of voices. The two teenagers stepped backward as a man wearing the armband of a part-time policeman went by.

"I hate running out on my dad like this," Seld said in a choked voice. "He's gonna kill me, Joat."

"No, the pirates may kill you, but all he can do is slap you around."

Shocked, the boy looked up. "Dad never hits me!"

"Well, then you've got a pretty good dad, and you're not running out on him—you're staying with him. 'S what you wanna do, isn't it?"

"Yeah." He turned his face to the wall. "I can't go . . . my mom. . . ." he said in a fierce tone. "I never saw her again . . . I woke up and she was just . . . gone."

Surprised at herself—she generally hated to touch people—Joat put an awkward arm around his shoulders. He clutched at her for a moment, sobbing.

"Sorry about blubbering," he said after a moment. Then he grew conscious of the bearhug grip he was exerting, and broke away.

"'Salright," Joat said. Somehow it is, she thought, then flogged her mind back to practical matters. "Need a snot-rag?"

"Thanks." He blew noisily on the one which she offered and then gave it back to her. "What do we do now?"

"We get out of sight. Channa's going to go ballistic, and she's nearly as hard to hide from as Simeon. Worse, 'cause I can't screw up her sensors."

"There she is," he said.

Joat's head whipped around. The noise was reaching tidal proportions around the tall lean figure of Channa Hap. Only the escort of Vicker's security personnel kept her from being bowled over in the crowd. She had a canvas carrier bag in one hand. Joat recognized the foot of the stuffed bear sticking out one side.

"That satisfies the letter of it," she said. "Let's go."

* * *

Channa stalked into the lounge, opened the door to Joat's room and flung the canvas bag she carried as hard as she could against the room's far wall. It made a solitary spot of disorder in the servo-neat room. Then she shut the door and walked stiffly to her desk, sat down and began keying through her messages, back hunched in rejection.

"It's not my fault," Simeon finally ventured to say.

She turned slowly to glare at his column.

Oooh, I'm glad this is titanium crystal, Simeon thought. Now, if only there was something similar available for the psyche. 

Just as slowly, just as silently, Channa turned back to her console.

Simeon sent her a message that read. "I'm sorry you had to go through that scene at Disembarkation."

Channa let out an exasperated little hiss and slapped the screen. Simeon's image appeared on it, wincing realistically.

Unwillingly, a smile quirked at her mouth. "Simeon, I would have been there anyway, to speak words of encouragement, to wish well, to shake hands, to show solidarity." She swung a fist in a go-get-'em gesture. "But I would have had a lot more credibility if I hadn't been standing there with an overnight bag in my hand. Did you see the suspicious looks I got? Half of the evacuees probably think I'm on one of the other ships. You could have said something, a quiet word of warning in my ear, as it were. Then I could have dumped that damned incriminating bag!" She turned to look at his column again. "Why wasn't she there?"

"She wouldn't go," Simeon said weakly. "She said she'd see you. I thought she meant there at the Boat Dock."

"You did?"

"Well, I hoped," Simeon said. "I tried my best to get her there. Pushed every emotional button I could. Manipulated shamelessly, you know the way I can."

"Ol' silver-tongued Simeon slips up again, huh?"

"I can't exactly get out of my shell and chase her down and hog-tie her, Channa. She wouldn't go. She told me that we could never find her in fifteen minutes and she was right. Even you'd have to agree with that. Trying to manipulate Joat is like trying to suck liquid hydrogen through a straw."

Channa sighed. "Indeed! But standing there with that bag was hideously embarrassing for me. Besides, I really wanted to get her to safety."

"I know how you feel," he soothed her. "This surrogate parent stuff is pretty intense." And it was your idea, he reminded himself. Oddly, he felt no impulse to remind her. I guess I like it, he decided.

She ground the heels of her hands into red-rimmed eyes. "I apologize."

Well, that's a first. "I accept."

* * *

"Announce me," Amos ben Sierra Nueva said to the door.

It hinged softly, and he knew it would be turning to a screen on the interior, showing his image in real-time. Such things still made him a little nervous. Bethel had never used much in the way of sophisticated electronics. Doors there were usually plain honest wood. He smiled slightly in spite of himself. Here, wood was an unthinkably expensive luxury, and the most advanced technology, the stuff of common life. At least he had been able to dress properly, from the baggage somebody threw into the shuttle at the last minute. It was demoralizing to look like some cottonchopper goatherd from the backlands. Loose black trousers tucked into his boots, silver-link belt emphasizing the narrow hips, open robe throwing his broad shoulders into relief. He bowed ceremoniously as he entered, sweeping off his beret to Channa.

"Come in." Channa's voice was flat and tired as the door opened, but her face lit in an inadvertent smile of welcome.

Good, he thought, smiling back. Even in this desperate hour, it was pleasant to have so exotic and attractive a woman smile at him. Then he bowed again, to the column. To Simeon, he forced himself to think. And tried not to think of the pale deformed thing in there, among the tubes and neural circuits. Whenever the image came to him, a slight tinge of nausea accompanied it. He was afraid that Simeon could detect his reaction. He could imagine several sensors that would make it difficult or impossible to lie to a shellperson. Guiyon he had never thought of so. Guiyon had always been there in the background, a sympathetic voice from his earliest days. Guiyon was my friend. 

"I am sorry to disturb you," he began. "Now that the most urgent tasks are done, I wish to reiterate my desire to assist in the coming battle."

"When our plans are more solid, I assure you there will be a place for you in them," Simeon said.

Amos's mouth quirked. You mean, when you've figured out something we can do, he thought.

"We are not trained as soldiers," he said with a self-deprecating smile and a shrug. "And we are from a backward world. But," he raised a finger, "I have thought of something which you both, being so close to the matter, may have overlooked." He glanced from Simeon to Channa and back again. "It is something that Guiyon said that makes me think of this.

"He said to me, I am one of Central Worlds' most valuable resources. The Kolnari do not have any brainships in their fleet and I do not intend to be the first." 

"Oh," Channa murmured.

"Hell," Simeon said. "I knew it but I didn't think of it. Brains are so rare, out in the backlands."

"Yes." Amos nodded vigorously. "We must hide the fact that Simeon exists. Or the first thing that the Kolnari do will be to cut out Simeon's shell and send it back to their fleet. This must not happen."

"Indeed it must not," Simeon said, his voice slow and flat. All three of them knew what followed from that. If the Kolnari did get their hands on a brain—one trained in strategy, at that—it would immediately change them from a wandering pack of scavengers to a first-rate menace.

"Simeon would never—" Channa began body, then trailed off.

"Yes." Simeon's voice was now as expressionless as a subroutine robotic. There were dozens of unpleasant ways of forcing a captive brain to capitulate. The most effective was also the worst: simply cut off the exterior sensor feeds which would mean sensory deprivation fugue in days or less. "I tend to forget how . . . helpless I am, most of the time," he went on. "Forget I'm a cripple, so to speak."

"You are not!" Channa blazed.

Amos blinked at the sight. She seemed to bristle, the widow's peak of her rusty-brown hair rising. I would not like to have this lady wrathful with me, the Bethelite thought respectfully.

She forced herself to be calm. "Compared to you, we are cripples, Simeon," she said. "You have a hundred abilities we lack."

"Thank you," he said in more normal tones. "Still, what Amos says is true. At all costs, we can't let the Kolnari get their hands on me."

The self-destruct sequence surfaced in the minds of both brawn and brain, like some monster rising from the depths of the ocean, with a wave of cold black water sweeping before it.

Amos coughed. "There is a way, I think. We may fool them. Convince them that there is no brain controller on this station. If indeed," and his lips peeled back over his teeth in a nasty grin, "barbarians such as the Kolnari even know of such persons."

Seeing Channa about to speak, he held up his hand to forestall her. "Do I assume that Simeon's name appears on far too many documents or news holos or whatever, for us to hide his very existence? Also, someone is sure to lapse and mention the name, thus giving rise to questions. So," and he gave his cloak a little flourish, "I have come to offer myself as a false Simeon. To deceive them." He looked from one to the other eagerly. "Is this not a good idea?"

"It's . . ." Channa began, and looked at him with shining eyes. "It's damn brilliant!" She sprang up and hugged him for a moment, then began to pace. "If we can get the substitution to work."

"Well, it sure beats suicide," Simeon said, for he had had to consider that as his only option. "One small point pops up, Amos. I've been here for forty years, and you're what, twenty-eight?"

"Ah, a valid point to consider," he said, "but as you have already pointed out, during their stay in this station, they are unlikely to spend time reviewing its history. They would have no reason not to accept me as Channa's assistant. If you feel it is an important concern, we could always tell them that Simeon is a title, I could then be the Simeon-Amos."

"Yes," Channa said enthusiastically, "we could pretend it's a traditional title. A position named after the first person who held it, an honorific! Why would they check if we say it is so and has always been? And that ploy would involve jimmying fewer personnel records—that's a major plus. Especially with people who've been here a while. Faking that is like trying to pull one card out of a tower. Every change means more changes and pretty soon it cascades out of control."

"There are the transients," Simeon said meditatively. "Most of them don't bother about who manages what so long as they're not inconvenienced. We've pretty near dispatched so many who do know that the ruse might just work." Simon began to enlarge the concept of deception. "Mmm, you know, we could use that old secondary control center that was on-line when the station was being built. Before I was installed here. These quarters don't look much like an office. We could say this is a living accommodation."

"Ah! Then you accept my offer as impostor," cried Amos. "Excellent! I shall move here as soon as you require me. Until then, I'd like to remain with my people. If you do not mind a companion in your lovely rooms?" he asked, turning swiftly to Channa, concerned that he also might have offended her with his presumption.

"We'll let you know when," she said, a little dazed.

"Of course," he said. He took her hand and kissed it tenderly, smiled in Simeon's direction, and left.

* * *

Channa stared at the closed doors for a moment, then turned to Simeon's shaft. "Excuse me, but did we just accept his offer?"

"Well, not exactly, but we didn't say no."

"I noticed that. Why not, I wonder?"

Simeon was a little amused at the idea of Channa being bowled over by another personality. "Hmm. Maybe because we agree with him?" Slyly: "Or it could be the pheromones, in your case, Happy baby."

Channa bridled and threw a cushion at the column. "Get serious. It is a good idea, even if I didn't think of it first. You have to be protected from the Kolnari."

"Yes," he said, enduring excruciating embarrassment at that truth. "Nor can I see any reason not to take him up on his offer. Maybe having an outsider close to our counsels will keep us on our toes, so to speak."

Channa gave a little grunt. "As I said, it's a good idea, but on second thoughts, why him? He'd have to learn a lot in very little time to sound as if he knew what he'd been doing all this time. I still have trouble finding my way around, and I not only grew up on a station, I had time to study the layout of the SSS-900 before I came here. Why not someone from the station? Someone we know and have confidence in?"

"I think we can have confidence in him, Channa," Simeon said thoughtfully.

"Hunh! Based on what?" she asked challengingly, hands on her hips.

"Authority usually stems from character, Channa. I've been watching him with his people, and there's no doubt that he's the man in charge. They look at him the way that people look at someone they can depend on. Consider the shocks they've all been through, especially him. Don't forget he went with Chaundra down to the morgue. Then he came to us with this . . . viable, I think . . . plan. We could do worse than accepting his offer. Besides, who else is there?"

"Since you ask, I was considering Gus."

"And who's going to be Gus, while Gus is being me?" He watched her cross her arms over her bosom and frankly pout. "We could end up changing every name in the station if we go that route. What with this and that, we could get so snarled up, we wouldn't know our arse ends from our ears."

She laughed, suddenly visualizing the corridors full of people checking their noteboards to see who they were that day.

"Besides," Simeon said, "I like Gus."

"What's that got to do with it?" she replied. "Oh."

Whoever fronted as the station's manager was the most likely to receive the brunt of occupational hazards. She liked Gus, and even on such short acquaintance, she liked Amos. He was undeniably nicer to look at and had already been through several layers of hell. On the other hand, somebody had to do it. If she was right there beside him to give judicious guidance—and being beside Amos was not a chore, maybe they'd get through without any really bad gaffes.

"All right," she said, raising her hands in capitulation. "Shuffling people around really could become more difficult than teaching one stranger the ins and outs of station management. At least enough to fool these thugs. But, on your enhanced head be it, my brave brain, if he turns out to be a disaster."

"I accept your challenge, my beautiful brawn. Shall I have him move in tonight?"

For a moment, Channa looked as though she'd inadvertently swallowed something too large and lumpy. "Ah, of course. We'll have to get his training started right away, won't we?"

* * *

Amos frowned. As attractively as he smiled, Simeon noted.

Sheesh. When this is over, he could earn megacredits as a vid-star with Singari Entertainments, making historicals.  

"But I had wanted to stay with my people," he said.

"I know," Simeon told him, "but we're placing the least injured in their own quarters, effective immediately, and scattering the rest. We can't risk having them identified as a group, you know."

The young man clasped his hands behind his back. "Yes, I see. All will be strange to the Kolnari, in many different ways. Our strangeness will be one more anomaly."

"You're not that strange," Simeon felt compelled to say. Too bloody handsome for my peace of mind. Or maybe being that handsome is stranger'n I realize. 

The elevator opened onto the corridor outside Simeon and Channa's quarters. Channa stood in the open door of the lounge to greet Amos. She held out her hand to him, wearing a formal, welcoming smile. He took her hand tenderly in both of his, bowed over it gracefully and kissed it gently, his eyes never leaving hers. Channa raised one brow and smiled crookedly, taking back her hand and gesturing him into the lounge.

"I know you wanted to stay with the others," she said, "but there's a lot you'll have to be briefed on, and we should get started. Also, Simeon may have told you, they'll be moving to their own quarters this evening."

"Yes, so he has told me," Amos said softly.

He looked at her with a warm attention that she found unnervingly intimate. "This will be yours," she said, opening the door farthest from her own.

He entered, looked around, his hands clasped behind his back once more. He nodded judiciously, "It is very nice," he said. He opened a closet, empty but for a few hangers.

"One of the things we'll have to do is fit you out according to your new position," Channa said from the doorway.

He smiled at her. "Yes, I need everything. And Bethel clothing would not be appropriate."

He walked over to stand right beside her. She had noticed that the Bethelites did that; their social distance was close and they were a very tactile people.

"I shall enjoy that," he said, "if you will help me choose?"

She lowered her eyes. "Perhaps, if time allows. Though you'll be guided by experts in men's fashions, which I am not." Down, girl! she told herself.

The door chimed and Simeon opened it. "I've sent down to the commissary for dinner. I doubt you've found the time to eat, Amos, so I've taken the liberty of ordering for two," he said.

"You do not like to cook?" Amos asked, turning to Channa in surprise.

"Not when I have more important things to do," she answered. "It isn't among my hobbies."

"Ah, well, doubtless your servants are skilled." His voice implied that a chatelaine should still oversee them personally.

Ah, good one, Amos. Simeon thought, feeling more cheerful. He had been reviewing what little was known of Bethelite culture. He did not think Channa would find it agreeable. Why don't you ask her to sit on the floor and rub your tired feet while you're at it, then retire to the rear of the house while the men talk business? 

It was worrying, though. Much as I hate to admit it, maybe Channa was right. This plan has inherent elements of disaster. I forgot to take into consideration that he's from an insular and probably—I'll be kind, old-fashioned. Nah! Why be kind—backward culture. All their preparations were a mishmash of improvisations. Would this be one too many?

Amos looked quickly from Simeon's column to Channa and said in mild dismay.

"I have caused offense. Please, forgive me. This was not my intention." He smiled ruefully down at Channa and sighed. "I clearly have more to learn than I had imagined. Even my speech—the more we talk, the more I am conscious of how old-fashioned I must sound to you. And, forgive me, we of Bethel are not used to dealing with people of strange—of different customs. That was one thing I disliked about my home, the insularity."

Hell, Simeon thought. He's not stupid. Adaptable, in fact. 

With a smooth professional smile, Channa gestured for him to take one of the seats at the table.

"Then let us begin," she said.

To his back she made a small moue of distaste, which quickly turned into a smile as he held out her chair and looked at her expectantly. She grinned and waved him to his seat.

"First," she said, "you must learn that we're much less formal here. We reserve our 'company manners' strictly for company."

"But," he said, smiling as he took his seat, "a beautiful woman should always be treated like a treasured guest."

Channa served herself from a platter and passed it to him, letting go of it almost before he'd gotten a grip on it.

"Flatterer. I'm not ugly, but I'm no great beauty, either."

He almost dropped the hot platter in surprise, its contents tilting alarming close to the edge and burning his thumb. He put it down hastily and sucked the injury for a moment.

"No, truly," he said, flapping his hand to cool it. "I think you are most attractive." There was no doubting the sincerity in his wide, gentian-blue eyes. The lashes, she noticed, were long and curled. His gaze grew playful. "In a strange, foreign, exotic fashion, of course."

"Well, you're very attractive, too, Amos," she said seriously.

"I like attractive women," he said, and his gaze was subtly challenging.

"Mmh, I don't like attractive men," she said positively. Actually, I don't approve of them, which is not exactly the same thing, she amended to herself. "They tend to be spoiled and self-centered and in general much more trouble than they're worth. Now, let us eat before the food cools. We have a great deal of work to do and not much time and energy to spare." She gave him a direct stare. "I'm sure we're going to have an excellent business relationship, manager to manager."

"Of course," Amos said with a neutral, social smile.

"Shouldn't you start calling Amos Simeon-Amos, Channa?" Simeon broke in, before the atmosphere got any cooler.

"Good idea," Channa said.

Amos, as far as Simeon could tell, was sulking slightly.

Aha, Simeon thought. With those looks, plus brains and charisma and high position, he's probably used to women succumbing to his every ploy. And, he noted charitably, the Bethelite was only in his early twenties. All the textbooks said softshells were highly subject to hormonal influences at that stage in their pitifully short development spans.

Nine gets you ten, he told himself, that there's a worn-down track in the carpet between their doors within a week. The notion was oddly unpalatable. He put it aside and launched into some of the nineteen million things Amos would have to become familiar with about station management.


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