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"Is it really necessary to inspect in person, Ms. Hap?" the detection systems chief said. "We have a virtual system for remotes," he went on helpfully.

"No substitute for hands on," Channa said with determined cheerfulness.

She reached up to the hatchway and chinned herself, sliding into the narrow inspection corridor. "Hand me up the toolkit, will you?"

* * *

Two hours later the chief stood rigidly as Channa finished her checklist. His skin was a muddy gray under the natural brown, and he seemed to be shaking slightly.

" . . . and deviations are more than thirty percent beyond approved," she said crisply.

"Ms. Hap"—the luckless bureaucrat said, trying to cut in once more—"those long-range systems are purely backup. They haven't been used since the SSS was commissioned!" At her raised eyebrow, he continued hurriedly, "Besides, I'm understaffed, and—"

"Chief Doak," she went on. "Regular personal inspections are standard procedure in all installations of this type. I don't care if the equipment is used infrequently. Backups exist for an emergency when they had better be able to perform the functions for which they were designed. And I don't care if you send in the remotes every so often. Machinery does what you tell it to do, whether that's the right thing or not. Experienced technicians are supposed to have a feel for their equipment. Your people obviously don't. This isn't satisfactory. Is that understood?"

"Yes, Ms. Hap," he said woodenly.

Bitch, she read in his eye. That's fine. You have your right to an opinion of me, and I have a right to expect you to do your work, she thought, turning and striding briskly for the door.

"I don't care what anyone says, Ms. Hap. I think you're going to do a great job."

It was one of the communications technicians. Channa smiled pleasantly at her and said softly, noting her name tag. "Frankly, Ms. . . . Foss, I don't give a damn what you think. I'm only concerned with the quality of your work. Which, at the moment, you're not doing." She continued down the corridor.

"Excuse me." Simeon said to Channa when she was out of earshot.


"Did you have to be so nasty to her?"

"Simeon, it would be unprofessional of me to allow people to choose up sides like that. We can chew out a section chief, but interfering in the chain of command is petty and divisive and causes morale problems. Perhaps I'm not going to be here very long, and I'm unwilling to leave that sort of mess for someone else to sort out. You've got to nip these things in the bud."

"Nipping is one thing. You cut her off at the knees."

"Oh, I see. You think I was unkind."

"You were! In fact, you were downright cruel."

Channa stood a moment, hands on hips, looking down thoughtfully. Then she shifted her weight and crossed her arms. "Simeon, I noticed that. Tell Radon was here twelve years longer than standard retirement date."

"He wasn't ready to go," Simeon replied suspiciously.

"But six years ago he submitted his resignation."

"He changed his mind and withdrew it. I wasn't about to force him out. He's a friend."

"Un-hunh. Well, when I glanced over some of the meeting records for the last few years, I couldn't help but notice that everyone behaved as though he wasn't there. On the infrequent occasions when he did make a contribution, it was immediately questioned. Or don't the words 'Is that right, Simeon' sound familiar?"

"So what are you getting at?"

"I'm getting at the basic difference in our styles, Simeon. When I'm cruel, it's to prevent more pain further down the line. When you're cruel, it's to get your own way."


"Surely you know that consideration for a friend can go both ways? Maybe Tell Radon stayed because he knew you would prefer it that way. You've had things your own way around here for quite a long while now. I don't imagine you were looking forward to breaking in someone new. Some stranger who might want to do things their way instead of using the nice, smooth routines you've worked out over time."

"Where are you getting this bullshit?"

She shrugged. "It's that or you just got so used to seeing him humiliated on a daily basis that you didn't notice it anymore. Either way, it probably felt the same to him."

"I know him, Hap; you don't. If Tell had a problem, he would have said something. Why would he suffer in silence when he knew he could come to me?"

"Have you looked at the recordings?"

"I don't have to look at anything. I was there."

"They'll confirm what I've said, you know."

You corycium-plated bitch! "Has it occurred to you that you're biased? You've been finding fault with me since we said hello. Let me tell you something, omniscient one, you can't get a good impression of Tell from the recs. He hated the damn meetings. 'Hell,' he used to say, 'these frigging meetings make my brain melt.' He rarely spoke at meetings. They just weren't his style."

"Was it customary to question his every comment when he did speak?"

"You're making a simple request for confirmation sound like attempted murder."

Channa bit her lower lip. "Simeon, the recs will confirm that what I saw is there, very plain to see, unmistakable, clear, obvious. You might find a review of the meeting recs illuminating. Okay?"

After a moment's reflection, something in Simeon opened like an eye and he saw a bitter twist to Tell Radon's mouth. Tell had always described it as "gas," but . . .

"You fight dirty, Channa," he said.

She blushed, but her expression remained hostile. "I'm angry," she said honestly. "My career is in ribbons because you wanted him to stay on. So when I saw . . ." She bit her lip again. Then she went on more calmly. "You have to be careful how you use expressions like, 'you cut her off at the knees' and 'you were cruel,' around me. It tends to set me off. Also, you could have taken me at my word instead of turning self-righteous."

"Yeah . . . I'll remember that." He paused. "Y'know, if you're really so hot to get out of here, I'll back your transfer request to the hilt. Since I didn't get what I asked for last time, I figure I'm still owed a few favors—"

"Ho no. The last time you backed someone to the hilt, the hilt ended up protruding from between my shoulder blades. Thank you so much. Now that I think about it, I intend to give Central Admin plenty of time to forget this mess and my starring role in it. You're stuck with me for a couple of years, at least, so you'd better get used to it. Oh, on the subject of overlooking things . . ."

"Yeah?" What now? Is there dust on the tight fixtures? 

"I came face to face with a little boy in one of the aft engineering compartments."


"What? No comment? Does this mean that you know about him? After all, you are able to view all areas of the station."

In the silence that followed, she walked over to the wall and leaned casually against it. "He was gone before I could react. But you know what's really strange? There is nothing on file about such a kid." The silence lengthened. "Simeon?" she asked with some asperity.

"A little boy?"

"Yes, Simeon, about twelve years old—Standard—give or take a couple of years. In the aft power compartment. A restricted area, I believe. A kid who looks and smells like a Sondee mud-puppy. Whose child is he? What can you tell me about him? Don't even try to tell me you know nothing. Kids don't acquire a patina of dirt like that overnight. He also looked like he'd been eating regularly, if not well. So someone's been looking out for him . . . minimally."

I don't think saying "You're cute when you're angry" would be a very good idea right now, Simeon thought. He froze her image and scanned it for temperature variations and pupil dilation. She was angry on behalf of an abandoned child rather than at him. Which makes a nice change. 

Besides, he could use an ally with this problem.

"He calls himself Joat," Simeon confessed with a sigh. "I don't know how long he's been here. I discovered him by accident myself. He's mechanically brilliant. The area he's staked out as his own just stopped needing repairs. That's probably the only reason I investigated. I mean, there are enough squeaky wheels around here. Why take notice of one that's quiet? Then I noticed that the last repair made in that section was two years ago. I got curious about nothing ever going wrong. So I went on a prowl, using mobile bugs, and kept, well, softpersons refer to it as seeing things out of the corner of their eyes. I always thought that had something to do with blinking, you know, eyelashes getting in your line of sight or something. But I kept seeing these flickers of movement and I don't blink. By turning up my sound reception I could sometimes hear little scrapes and movement, but there was a sort of 'white noise' masking it. It seemed unlikely that everything else in the area was running perfectly with the exception of my sensors, so I decided to do a stakeout. Eventually, he got careless and wandered into my line of sight. The first time I spoke to him, blip, he disappeared. It was a long time before I could get him to talk to me. You'll note I said talk, not trust. He's incredibly wary. I can't believe he was clumsy enough to let you see him."

"Two years?"

Leave it to you, you bitchoid, to pick out the pertinent information. "I said the last logged repair was two years ago. It's been known to happen. What can I say? Somewhere from two years to two months, who knows?"

"Who is he, Simeon?"

"His story is that he ran away from a tramp freighter. Joat told me that the captain won him from his uncle in a card game. I know, I know, that sort of thing's illegal, but it does happen out here in the boonies. The tramp left abruptly and went somewhere not listed. Joat has never had it soft, but apparently, the captain he ran from was of a different order of brutality altogether."

Channa wrinkled her nose. "Sounds like something out of Dickens."

"Yeah, well, the more things change . . ." and he left the sentence dangling. "What are you going to do?" he asked warily. After his first, disastrously wrong, impression, Channa hadn't struck him as a bleeding heart. Would she suggest flooding the compartment to flush the poor kid out?

"We've got to get him out of there. We can't leave a little boy in a dangerous and restricted area. It's illegal at best and irresponsible by any standard."

"He's been badly hurt and frightened, Channa. He doesn't want to be with people. The little guy can barely tolerate me. He likes machinery better than people, and I qualify as a borderline case. Besides, even I can't find him if he really doesn't want to be found. Maybe we should leave him alone for the time being. He's where he wants to be."

Channa looked up with her jaw set. "Simeon, no child wants to be alone in the dark and the cold of a power room, or wherever he's lodged himself. He needs and deserves to be taken care of! It's his right."

"I agree in principle, but I think he needs more time. I'll take the responsibility."

"What does that mean?"

"I'll take full and complete responsibility for what happens to him."

Channa brightened. "Really?"

"Yeah, really."

"Okay," she said, "I'll call up some information on adoption procedures and we can get doings underway."

"What?" I'm always screaming what? at this woman. I'm beginning to feel like a demented parrot. 

"Well, what else did you mean when you said you would accept responsibility?"

"That, if anything goes wrong, I'll answer for it." I swear, if I had hair I'd tear it out. Softshells have some advantages after all. But, what is this . . . this . . . wench trying to do to me? 

"Great! If he gets killed or maimed, you'll accept a discommodation? Well, how big of you!" Channa cut Simeon off when he began to splutter a protest. "By now you should know that I listen to what you say, even when you don't. I promise you, Simeon. I will always call you on it when you try to shut me up or fob me off. You're not going to shuffle this one off, buddy. I won't let you."

"What are you talking about? I didn't put him in this situation. I want to help the kid. Hell, I am helping. I just don't see any need to rush him. The fact that you saw him may mean that he's almost ready to come out on his own. I'm certainly opposed to coercing him. Geeeze but you're hostile! You're so willing to believe the worst about me that every time I talk to you I feel like my circuits are being realigned. Am I really such an evil bastard? Or," and he changed his tone from plaintive to trenchant, "could it be that you really are the most bloody-minded, impossible woman I have ever met?"

"Oh, Simeon," she drawled, "you have no idea how difficult I can be. Just cross me if you want to find out."

A chill settled in Simeon's mind. Does that mean that so far she's been reasonable? Gah! 

"You're about to become a father, Simeon. That's what full and complete responsibility for a child means. Congratulations, it's a boy. If your word is good."

"They're not going to let me adopt a kid."

"Why not? You've been extensively tested for emotional stability, you have a responsible job. You even appear to care very much about his feelings. Do you think such a wounded child, of his age, is going to have prospective parents lining up to take care of him? I think you've got a very good chance."

She clapped her hands and rubbed them together gleefully. "So . . . let's get to work on it."

* * *

Mart'an presented the menu with a flourish and left them with a bow.

Channa looked around wide-eyed at the dimly lit, subdued elegance of the Perimeter Restaurant. There were even actual beeswax candles burning on the tables; a fortune for material and air-bills both.

No pleasure like spending somebody else's money, she thought. The Perimeter was paying; something of a goodwill gesture. And it was logical for her to get acquainted with one of the station's premier tourist attractions.

SSS-900's finest restaurant was just down from the north-polar docking extension; the outer wall was a hundred-meter sheet of synthmet set on clear. Stars rolled huge and bright beyond—fixed stars and the frosty arch of the Snakeshead Nebula, and the bright moving points of light that were shuttles and tugs. Within, the floor was of glossy black stone set with squares of gold—SSS-900 processed a lot of gold as a by-product—and the tables were made of real and precious wood, glossy under the snowy linen tablecloths. Waiters moved amid a quiet chinking of silverware, savory smells wafting from the platters they carried. A live orchestra played something soft and ancient.

"Stars and comets—a little rich for this outposter!" Channa said. "I'd heard of the Perimeter, but somehow I never expected to actually come here."

Patsy grinned. "C'mon now, Hawking Station wasn't an asteroid minin' center. Leastwise, not of the sort our sainted Simeon cut his teeth on."

"Well, no . . . but I couldn't afford anything like this when I was at home. Didn't have the time, either. After I graduated and started pulling assignments, I've been mostly at outposts. Worse than Simeon's."

Waiters filled water glasses, laid their napkins in their laps, brought warm rolls and softened butter. Everything except brush our teeth and massage our feet, Channa thought. It was a little unnerving. Most places you asked for the selection, told the table what you wanted, and a float brought the meal to you. The sheer expense of having live human beings do all this!

"I'd never've et in here if it weren't on the station's ticket," Patsy confessed in a whisper during a lull in the service. "Or unless a date was really tryin' to impress me. More relaxin' with another female—you kin concentrate on the food without insultin' 'em."

"If this weren't complimentary, I wouldn't be here now, either."

They grinned at each other.

"Well, thank you fer invitin' me," Patsy said. "I woulda thought you might invite that med-tech you were talkin' to last night."

"Please, I'm looking forward to this meal. I won't be able to eat if I remember him. Have you heard some of his anecdotes?"

"All of 'em," Patsy said, nodding solemnly. "You've a point thar, ma'am. Chaundra's a nice enough feller, but his stomach's a mite too strong fer me."

"Besides, you and I have similar taste in music. You can always talk to someone who likes the same music."

Talk they did, touching on everything from Geranian folk ballads to eighteenth-century Earth composers, eventually matching the personnel of the station to various types of music.

"Simeon? Straight honky-tonk, no question," Channa said firmly.

Patsy laughed. "Oh, c'mon, Channa, there's unplumbed depths there. He's not that simple. It's just that the minin' center assignment came at an impressionable age fer him. Rough, tough rockjack, you know. His public image."

"Well." She looked down at the menu. It provided motion holos of the dishes as she ran her finger down the page. "I'll start with these grumawns, first, in the fiery sauce. Cleardrop soup. Grilled rack of jumbuk from Mother Hutton's World—good grief, they do have everything here!—baby carrots, salad. Spun pastry bluet confection for dessert, with Port Royal coffee. Castiliari brandy."

"Sounds good. I'll go with the jumbuk too, but . . . hmm. Fennel-leek soup first. Wine?"

"I don't usually—" Channa began.

"If I might suggest?" Mart'an appeared at their table. Appeared, Channa thought, as if he'd blinked out of some hypothetical subspace. "The Mon'rach '97 to begin with, a half-bottle. Then, with the main course, a Hosborg estate-bottled '85. I'll open it now so it can breathe."

"Sure," Channa said, then sighed with pleasure. "You know, I was looking forward to the Perimeter, ever since they told me SSS-900 would be—"

"SSS-900-C, now, Ms. Hap."

Channa blushed. "—would be my next assignment."

The first course arrived. The pink grumawns were coiled steaming on top of a bed of fragrant saffron rice, the sauce to one side. Channa took a sip of the wine, chilled and with a faint scent of violets, then lifted one grumawn on the end of a two-tined fork.

"I did do a lot of work today," she murmured to herself. She opened her mouth, and—

* * *

The Confederate armor was grinding through the woods and fields north of Indianapolis. The burning city cast a pall of smoke into the sky behind them. Diesel engines pig-grunted as the smooth low-slung shapes of the tanks and tank-destroyers crashed through brush and twelve-foot high cornstalks, past the flaming shards of a farmhouse and barns. The long 90mm barrels of the tank guns swung toward the thin strung-out lines of the Union convoys, caught in the flank as they attempted to switch front. The fighting vehicles surged back on their tracks at each monster crack of high-velocity cannon fire, and the air filled with the bitter scent of cordite. Chaos spread through the blue ranks as tracer and cannon fire sent trucks exploding into globes of magenta fire. A Northern tank dissolved, the turret flipping up like a frying-pan, a hundred meters into the air.

Behind the fighting vehicles, long lines of men in gray uniforms followed, advancing with their semiautomatic rifles carried at the port. Here and there an officer carried a sword, or the Stars and Bars fluttered from a staff.

"Now!" General Fitzroy Anson-Hugh Beauregard III said into the bulky mike hung from his vehicle helmet.

His command tank was a little back from the edge of the combat, hull down; the general stood head-and-shoulders out of the commander's cupola. The turret pivoted under him, the massive casting moving smoothly on its bearing race. The long cannon fired in a flash that seared his vision, just as the opening salvos of artillery went by overhead. Down along the road, tall poplar-shapes of black dirt gouted skyward. Another explosion shook the earth and sent heavy vehicles pinwheeling like a child's models under a careless boot; the command-tank's round had hit the tracked carrier for a Unionist self-propelled gun.

The general nodded. "Nothing to stop us short of the Lakes," he said. Nothing to stop them linking up with the British Guards Armored Corps, driving southeast out of occupied Detroit, cutting the Union in two. . . .

* * *

"Conceded," Florian Gusky said, and lifted the visor of the simulation helmet. He sighed heavily and took a pull of his beer, then looked around the room as though surprised to find himself alone with Simeon, blinking away the consciousness of a world and war that had never been. There was a slight sheen of sweat on his heavy-browed face and he worked the thick muscles of his shoulders to loosen the tension.

"You could play it out to the end," Simeon's image said from a screen above his desk.

"No dam' point. You've whipped my butt in that simulation twice, from both Union and Confederate sides."

"I could take a handicap," Simeon said with much less enthusiasm, Gus noted.

So he nodded. The last time he had beaten Simeon was in a Caesar vs. Rommel match on the site of Carthage, with the shellperson commanding Caesar's spear-armed host against Panzers and Stukas. Even then he had inflicted embarrassing casualties.

"Where is she?" Gus asked. There was no need to identify the female in question.

"She's dining at the Perimeter."

Gus raised his eyebrows in astonishment. "The Perimeter? That's some salary she gets." The Perimeter attracted two sets of guests: the rich, and spacers looking to blow six months' pay on one night.

Simeon laughed. "Nah, she's a guest of the management. Patsy's with her."

"Yeah, Patsy likes her," Gus said, his tone indicating that this revealed a serious and heretofore unsuspected flaw in Patsy's character. "Can you see them?"


"What're they doing?"


"About us?"

"I don't know. I'm not listening. Now they're laughing."

"They're talking about us, alright," Gus said gloomily.

"Geesh, Gus, let's get back to the game."

There was a plaintive edge to Simeon's voice. Gus reached for the helmet and then stopped, a slow grin creasing his heavy features.

"Isn't it about time we had a drill?" he said, thoughtfully.

"We just had one. About four hours ago, remember?"

"When I was in the Navy we had 'em six times a day, sometimes," Gus replied.

He knew that Simeon badly wanted to pull Navy duty. Only a few staff-and-command vessels used shell controllers and Simeon didn't rate, yet. In the meantime, he put a lot of weight on Gus' experience as a fire-control officer on a patrol frigate. That had been some time ago—Florian Gusky had spent a decade's hard work clawing his way up to regional security chief for Namakuri-Singh, the big drive-systems firm—but Simeon had a bad case of military romanticism. And real talent, he told himself without envy of the brain's abilities.

"I know it's early," Gus went on persuasively, "but it's important not to have predictable intervals. So we don't get complacent."

"Well . . ."

"I'd love to see the look on their faces."

"Since you put it that way—"

* * *

Channa started as the klaxons rang. They sounded like no other she had ever heard, a harsh repeated ouuuuga-ouuuuga sound. The elegant minuet of movement among the waiters turned to an inelegant but efficient scramble for the exits; some moved to assist guests. Thick slabs hissed up out of the floor along the outer wall and the lights flared bright.


Patsy stood and looked at her barely touched entree with dismay. "Damn! That's the second time this shift!" She threw her napkin down with disgust. "Simeon pulls these drills like a boy kickin' over an anthill to see the bugs scurry."

"Simeon!" Channa shouted.

"Yeah?" The klaxons dimmed in a globe around them.

"Is this a genuine emergency or just a test?"

"Excuse me, brawn-o'-mine, but you're not supposed to be privy to that information." There was the hint of a smug smile in the brain's voice.

"If you think I'm getting up from the best meal that's ever been put in front of me just because you're feeling your oats, you've got another thing coming. Cut it!"

As the klaxon abruptly ceased, people stopped, puzzled, and milled around uncertainly.

"Tell them it's over, Simeon. Don't just leave them standing there."

"This has been a test," Simeon informed them in the feminine tones he used for such announcements. "Return to your stations. This has been a test."

"We will discuss this later," Channa assured him icily. "Overdoing drills is dangerous, irresponsible and generally counterproductive."

Ah, hell, Simeon thought exhaustedly, why did I listen to you, Gus? I don't think you like the looks on their faces after all, buddy. I know I don't. He wondered what he could do to make it impossible for her to gain access to him for the next week.

Patsy sat down slowly, her wide eyes fixed on Channa's flushed countenance. "You really don't lahk him, do ya?" she said with some astonishment.

Channa looked at her blandly. "Whatever makes you say that?"

Patsy shook her head. "Just a hunch."

Channa sighed and smiled ruefully. "Well, to be fair, there may be a touch of 'transference' there. You see, I've always wanted to work planet-side. I love the feel of wind in my hair and rain on my face. I enjoy splashing in an ocean, and the feel of earth under my feet. So, for the past two years I've been campaigning for a particular assignment." She looked up at Patsy inquiringly. "Have you ever been to Senalgal?"

Patsy nodded and smiled warmly in reminiscence. "I sher have. I had my first honeymoon thar. What a gorgeous place! Beautiful beaches, warm ocean, flowers eve'rwhar, and the food. I'd love to live thar, at least fer a while." She sighed. "So, go on."

"Well, as you can imagine, the competition was incredible. I'd been through twelve interviews, including one with Ita Secand, the city-manager of Kelta, whom I would have been working with. God! What I wouldn't give to work with her. She's witty, charming, sophisticated. I felt that I could learn so much from her. It had come down to two of us, myself and someone else."

She shook her head. "I never did know who the other candidate was, but my feeling was that it was going to be an extremely difficult choice. When suddenly, after holding on for twelve years, Tell Radon decides that he has to retire right now! And that sweet little plum, that was almost in my hand, was snatched away so fast it left scorch marks on my nail polish. 'You're station born and bred,' they told me. 'You're perfect for this assignment,' they said. 'It's an extremely important and prestigious post,' they assured me. Rurrrgh! As the saying goes, I could just spit."

Patsy looked at Channa's bitter face.

"It's a gyp, alright. Looks like yer skills ah goin' against you instead of helpin' you out. So, maybe you ah takin' it out on Simeon jest a teensy bit?" She grinned and held up a hand that measured out a micrometer between thumb and forefinger. "Hey, maybe that's good fer him. Now, I think," she placed a hand on her bosom, "that we need you mo'n Senalgal does. I mean, Senalgal's gonna be special whoever runs it, right? But a station, well, it can be just a big ol' factory with the wrong people in charge. You don't need Ita Secand t' teach you to be witty and sophisticated—you already ah. We need some a' that right here, Ms. Hap, an I'm not kiddin'."

Channa blushed and grinned, taking a sip of her wine to hide her embarrassment.

"Well, thank you. That's quite a challenge you've set me," she murmured, and changed the subject. "Who was that big, handsome, gray-haired fellow you were talking to last night? Somehow I never met him."

"Florian Gusty?"


"We call him Gus."

"I can see why."

Patsy smiled warmly. "He's quite a guy—a retired Navy man, a crack navigator. The stories he's got . . . I mean to tell you, mmhm."

"I see he's spoken for," Channa said with a grin.

"Not so you'd notice," Pasty said primly. "I admit I lahk him, though. I jus' love to heah him talk. When I was a kid, I thought I'd do what he did. You know, join the Navy and scour the universe of evil doers, jus' like some ferocious holo-hero." She sighed. "But heah I am, nothin' but an algae-herder."

"An algae-herder?" Channa asked in amusement. "Algae travel in herds?"

"Oh, you know what I mean. Instead of doin' somethin' adventurous, I'm just watchin' these bubblin' vats o' goop. The excitement is not goin' to give me ulcers." She sighed. "Sometimes I wish fer a real disaster. Something special."

Channa looked at her seriously. "Be careful what you wish for," she said. "You may get it."

* * *

Channa hummed tunelessly as she filled out the adoption forms, looking perfectly content and at peace with the world. The sound irritated Simeon excessively. True, he could in a sense "leave" the area and had done so. But he kept coming back, as though to a blown circuit; drawn to the irritant, checking again and again to see if anything had changed.

Finally he said, "You seem happy." Hap. Happy. Bet that would bug her bad.

"I love filling out forms," she said. "The more complex the better."

Somehow it figures, Simeon thought. When you became a brawn, the universe lost a great tax auditor. 

"Filling out your side of this is no problem," she said. "Your whole life is on file. But I'm going to have to talk to the child soon."

"I can do that," he said defensively. I can also fill out the damn forms, in half the time or less and without making obnoxious noises. 

She turned to look at the column that held him. "Simeon . . . while I grant you that we should be as delicate as possible." She paused and gestured helplessly. "I've . . . we've, got to get him to Medical. We've got to prove, by retinal patterns and gene analysis, that he exists at all. You know how bureaus are: no tickee, no washee. We've got to do a recorded interview of him. So he's got to emerge, fully grown—well, almost—from the engineering compartments and into the real world," she concluded in a rush.

"Okay, I'll talk to him."

"Simeon," she hesitated, "why don't you introduce us? I mean, you can discuss the adoption with him. I can stay out of sight nearby until he wants to meet me."

She's being conciliatory, he realized. Why doesn't this reassure me? He forced down nonexistent hackles and replied in a neutral tone. "Sure, why not?"

* * *

Channa could hear them talking from where she sat against the cold bulkhead.

"You want to adopt me?" a young voice asked in disbelief. A yearning hope sounded through it.

"Yeah," Simeon said, surprised to find that he was getting to like the idea.

Joat's head popped into Simeon's line of sight, seemingly from out of nowhere.

"You can't do that," he said with complete certainty, voice flat again. "They won't let you adopt a kid. You're not real."

Simeon was taken aback. "What do you mean I'm not real?"

Joat's young face was lit with amused wonder. "I hate to be the one to break your bubble, but who's going to let a computer adopt a kid?"

"Where did you get the idea that I'm just a computer?" Simeon demanded with a hard edge to his tone.

Channa bit down on the fleshy part of her hand. That kid doesn't pull his punches, she thought. Poor Simeon brain, though, does the offended dignity bit well . . . She stifled the rising guffaw with a swallow. An audible reaction would be out of place. Definitely.

"You told me," Joat informed him, exasperation creeping into his voice. "You said 'I am, in effect, the station.' That means you're a machine. I've heard about AIs and voice-address systems."

To both his observers, his voice was conciliatory but his expression reflected an inner anxiety that maybe this computer was losing its tiny mind.

And he probably thinks that would be very interesting, the station computer losing function, Simeon thought in exasperation. Kids! 

He had noted that, while Joat could keep his voice disciplined, his expression revealed his real feelings. Simeon wondered if he could maintain that duality in the presence of the visually-advantaged. Not that he, Simeon, was in any way visually-disadvantaged. Quite the opposite, as Joat would learn soon enough. "Joat, I think it's time that notion got altered. There's someone nearby I'd like you to meet. She's known as a brawn, and she's my mobile partner." Which was true as far as it went, Simeon amended.

Joat's face went wary. "I don't want to meet anybody," he muttered sullenly, looking cautiously around him. "She, you said?" Another pause. "No, I don't want to meet anyone."

"But we've already met, sort of," Channa called out.

Joat vanished instantly.

"He's gone," Simeon said.

"No, he's not," Channa contradicted. "He's nearby. Joat? Simeon is a real person, as real as you or me. But he is connected to the station in such a way that the station is an extension of his body. I'd be happy to tell you about it."

No answer but a receptivity which she could almost feel beyond her in the narrow access aisle.

"Well," she began, "shellpeople were created as a means of enabling the disadvantaged to live as normal a life as possible. At first that was limited to the creation of miniaturized tongue or digital controls, or body braces. The extension of such devices was to encapsulate the entire body, though some people still think it's just the person's brain—because they're called 'brains.' Despite popular fiction, such an inhumanity is not permitted. Simeon is there, body, mind and . . ." She paused and then realized that she couldn't permit personal opinion to corrupt the explanation. " . . . heart. Simeon is a real person complete with his natural body but he is also this station-city in the sense that instead of walking about it, he has sensors that gather information for him and he controls every function of the station from his central location."

"Where is—" Joat paused, too, struggling to comprehend the concept "—he? He is a he, isn't he?"

"I'm as masculine as you," Simeon said, accustomed to such an explanation of shellpeople but wishing to underline his humanity. He did note that his voice had dropped further down the baritone level he used. Well, why not? 


"Instead of having to give orders to subordinates," Channa went on, "to, say, check the life-support systems, or Airlock 40, or order an emergency drill, he can do it himself more quickly and more thoroughly than any independently mobile person could."

"And I don't need to sleep, so I'm on call all the time." Simeon couldn't resist adding that.

"Never sleep?" Joat was either appalled or awed.

"I don't require rest, although I do like relaxation and I have a hobby. . . ."

"Not now, Simeon, although—" and there was a smile in Channa's voice "—I admit that that makes you more human."

"Were you human . . . I mean, were you . . . did you live like one of us?" Joat asked.

"I am human, not a mutant, or a humanoid, Joat," Simeon said reassuringly. "But something happened when I was born, and I'd never have been able to walk, talk, or even live very long unless the process of encapsulating had been invented. Usually it's babies that become shellpeople. We are more psychologically adjusted to our situation than adults. Though sometimes pre-puberty accident victims work out well as shellpeople. I can look forward to a long and very useful life. But I'm human for all of that."

"Very human," Channa replied in a droll voice.

Simeon didn't quite like the implications, but at least she said the right things.

"And you run the city?"

"I do, having instantaneous access to every computerized aspect of such a large and multi-function space station as well as peripheral monitoring devices in a network to control traffic in and out."

"I thought brains only ran ships," Joat said after a long pause.

"Oh, some do, of course," Simeon said, slightly patronizing, "but I was specially chosen and trained for this demanding sort of work." He ignored the delicate snort from Channa that somehow reminded him he'd started out his management career in a less prestigious assignment. "Do you understand now that I am human?"

"I guess so," was Joat's unenthusiastic reply. "You've been in that shell since you were a baby?"

"Wouldn't be anywhere else," Simeon said proudly, letting his voice ring with a sincerity no shellperson ever had to counterfeit.

There was a slightly longer pause. "Then it's not true, what I heard?" Joat began tentatively.

"Depends on what you heard," Channa said, having learned in academy the long list of atrocities supposedly enacted.

"That they put orphaned kids in boxes?"

"Absolutely not!" Channa and Simeon chorused in loud unison.

"That's totally inaccurate," Channa said firmly. "It's the sort of mean thing people say to scare kids, though. The program won't accept perfectly healthy bodies. To begin with, the medical costs and education are incredibly expensive. So is the maintenance for shellpersons. But it's better than depriving a sound mind of life because the body won't function normally. Don't you think so?"

Silence greeted that query.

"And if you've also heard the one about taking the brains from the homeless or displaced—no, that is definitely not permitted, either."

"You're sure?"

"Sure!" Simeon and Channa replied firmly.

"And we should know," Channa went on. "I had to spend four years in academy to learn how to deal with shellpeople, of all types."

Which, Simeon knew, was another backhanded slam at him. Did she never let up? One thing was sure, Joat's misinformation made him more determined than ever to adopt the boy and give him such security that that sort of macabre stuff would be forgotten.

"And, no matter what sort of spaceflot you've been told, Central Worlds doesn't make slaves of people," Channa was saying at her most emphatic. "The very idea sends chills up my spine."

"Not even criminals?"

"Especially not criminals," Channa said with a little laugh. "With all the power available to a shellperson, you may be very sure Central Worlds makes certain that they are psychologically conditioned to a high ethical and moral standard."

"What's this e'tical?" Joat asked.

"Code of conduct," Simeon said, "probity, honesty, dedication to duty, personal integrity of the highest standard."

"And you own this station?" Joat asked, his voice tinged with awe.

Channa laughed in surprise at that assumption.

"I wish," Simeon said fervently.

"Remember my mentioning that creating and training a shellperson is expensive? I wasn't kidding. By the time Simeon graduated from training, he had an enormous debt to pay off to Central Worlds."

"Hunh. Thought you said they weren't slaves."

"They're not. Every shellperson has the right to pay off their debt and become a free agent. A good many shippersons do and then they own themselves. A management shellperson, like Simeon, will often get their debt picked up by a corporation, and when they've worked off the debt, they work under contract."

"Are you paid off, Simeon?"

"No, though my contract fee is generous enough. But, as I mentioned, I have hobbies . . ."

"Like what?" Joat asked.

"I've got a great sword and dagger collection which includes a genuine Civil War flag, a regimental eagle."

"Hey, way cool! Got any guns?"

What is it with some males? Channa thought.

"Yeah," Simeon said eagerly. "I've got a real Brown Bess flintlock, and an M22. And one of the first backpack lasers ever issued!"

"No shit!" Joat said, seeming to forget Channa's presence for a moment. His voice sounded louder, as if he was drifting back from whatever refuge he had bolted towards. "All sorts of old weapons, eh?"

"You name it. A Roman gladius, even."

"A what?"

"Good question," Channa said.

"Shortsword. Over three thousand years old," Simeon broke in. A pause. "Of course, it could be a reproduction. If so, it's still in awfully good shape for an artifact of that age. I can trace it back at least five hundred years' provenance. The records say it was first owned by the legendary collector Pawgitti, then dug up out of the ruins of his villa."

My throat is getting hoarse, Channa realized an hour later. Amazing what he knows. Joat had probably neatly escaped formal education, but had acquired a jackdaw's treasure chest of information about his keener interests. Anger awoke in her. It was criminal that a mind like Joat's had been ignored, like a weed in a corner lot. Or the barbaric way in which pre-shell handicapped were ignored as nonproductive persons. Joat wasn't just interested in showing that he knew things that she didn't, either. There was a naked hunger to learn in his voice. Closer and closer . . . She could see a little huddled shadow and an occasional glint of his eyes as he turned his head.

"And weapons are merely a part of what I've been collecting over the years," Simeon was saying. "I've got great strategy games—whole boards . . ."

Channa was shocked. Simeon would adopt the kid as a games partner? Then she realized he was only sweetening the pot.

"I don't know of a shellperson who has adopted, but I think it would be to your advantage, Joat. Certainly it would mean security and a place to call your own instead of ducking from one hidey-hole to the next when inspection teams go through. You'd have regular meals, and you could go to engineering school."

Channa heard a soft "yeah" from out of the cold darkness.

"Think it over tonight, why don't you?" Simeon said. "Tomorrow you can come up and scan the room I can assign you. Maybe have dinner with Channa and talk about it some more."

"Yeah," came more clearly from out of the darkness.

"Okay," Simeon's voice was pleased. "If you have any questions tonight, just speak 'em out, and I'll answer."


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