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It's an honor to win the trust of a child, Simeon thought, especially one who's been through what this kid has. I don't think I've ever been quite this happy. He intuited that the feeling approximated what the word "tickled" meant, and he also thought that this was what it felt like to smile. Since Joat had moved in, he'd been trying to empathize more with the softperson worldview.

Of course, there have been some surprises. . . . 

Seen for the first time by the full light of day-cycle floros, Joat was not prepossessing. Short for his age, scrawny to the point of emaciation, with huge blue eyes in a face that might have been any color short of black under the gray, ground-in coating of grime and machine oil. The mouse-brown hair had been hacked off and was standing up in tufts. The clothing was an adult-sized coverall with the arms and legs cut off to fit. An air of sullen suspicion accompanied a pungent odor.

"I've never run across the name, 'Joat' before," Channa began casually. "It doesn't give a clue about where you're from the way that some names do. I use 'Hap' as a surname because I was born on Hawking Alpha Proxima Station, for example."

"Joat's my name." Joat answered, sticking his chin out aggressively. "I gave it to myself. It means 'jack-of-all-trades,' 'cause that's what I do, some of everything."

"So it's a nickname," Channa said. "Shall we put you down on the form as Jack, then?"

Joat looked at her with cool contempt. "Why? That's a boy's name."

"You're a . . . girl?" Simeon asked, bringing the "g" sound up from the depths of his diaphragm and managing to split the word in several astonished syllables.

"What's wrong with that? She's a girl!" Joat declared defensively, pointing at Channa, as though ducking responsibility.

Channa burbled with heavily suppressed laughter before she managed some reassurance. "Hey, it's all right that you're a girl. It's just that . . . All that dirt . . ." Channa couldn't risk continuing in that vein and switched abruptly " . . . is an effective disguise."

"Good disguise," Joat said proudly. "Bad idea to let people know when you're a girl. Can cause you trouble. But, since you say I gotta go to a medic," she paused to look questioningly at Channa who nodded, "best you don't look surprised then." She grinned slyly and then looked over at Simeon's column. "You really didn't know?"

"Not a clue," he said wonderingly, and Joat giggled with pleasure. "Hmm. According to the biological studies I had, it's not easy to tell with the pre-pubescent . . . dressed or in disguise."

"I can always tell," Joat said with some contempt for his ignorance.

"You're a softshell."

"You sure you're not a computer?"

"Yes, I am—stop teasing!"

Joat grinned unrepentently. Simeon felt an unfamiliar sensation and tried to identify it. A flutter in the ribcage? he thought wonderingly.

* * *

"Why haven't they answered the tight-beam?" Simeon asked nervously a week later. "I sent everything. The forms were all correct."

"It's a bureaucracy," Channa said soothingly.

"Oh? That's supposed to reassure me?" Simeon said. A moment later: "Why is Joat's room always a mess? I send in the servos twice a day and it's still in a maximum-entropy state."

"It's called 'adolescence,' Simeon," Channa said. "At least she seems to be settling in at school."

Simeon's image winced. Joat had unexpectedly cleaned up as pretty, though she had wrinkled her nose when he'd mentioned that. She seemed to trust him—Channa as well—to a limited extent. Any further social interfacing was . . . lacking.

"She gets in too many fights," he said. She also fought very, very dirty. He winced again when he thought of the places some blows, kicks and punches had landed.

"She's not used to interacting except as a potential victim," Channa replied. "I don't think she's ever been with anyone in her own age group. She certainly doesn't know the local rituals. She's an outsider—practically a feral child. We're lucky she can respond to other human beings at all."

An awkward silence fell for a moment. Unspoken: and she didn't think you were human when she met you. 

"She's learned about daily showers," Simeon pointed out helpfully.

"Oh, there's good stuff in Joat," and Channa grimaced. "Even if her brand of ethics is unusual, at least she's consistent in applying it. All she needs is some security and a chance."

"Isn't that all anybody needs?"

Several hours later, Simeon still glowed with satisfaction in their accomplishments with Joat. This, being a father thing, is great, he thought, and wanned measurably towards Channa. I've got to thank her. 

For the first time since she had arrived, Simeon looked into her quarters and was surprised at how, in that short time—under two weeks, although it seemed like more—it had changed from the spartan chamber Tell Radon had occupied. She had tinted the walls a soft, off-pink and had put "paint-chips" into the permanently installed frame-projectors. The jewel-bright colors and romantic images of the pre-Raphaelites, Alma-Tadema and Maxfield Parrish glowed from the walls, along with some modern Mintoro reproductions. The bedspread was an icy gray satin on which were scattered embroidered pillows of peach and gray and blue.

"Say, Channa," he said in tones of pleased approval, "I like what you've done with the room."

Channa emerged from the bathroom clad in a blue silk robe trimmed with lace, a brush in her hand and swept out of her quarters into the main lounge without saying a word. She stopped in front of Simeon's column and crossed her arms, her eyes blazing. All Simeon's warm feelings fell into cold ash as he looked out at her. Maybe if he didn't say anything, she'd go away and not say whatever it was that was burning inside her eyes. Nah, when have I ever been that lucky where she's concerned? 

Her body was rigid, though her shoulders twitched and her lips opened several time. He'd better say something to stem the acid eruption.

Using as casual and complimentary tone as he could manage, he said, "You have very romantic tastes, Channa," which seemed to reduce her blazing eyes a degree or two. He'd never know why he continued: perhaps sheer mischief to get a little of his own back. "Though your bed looks amazingly like an ice cube."

She blinked in astonishment and he thought, A hit! A very palpable hit! But then she took a deep breath.

"I did not think," she said, every word precise and polished, "that it would be necessary to actually say this, but since I must, I shall. Because we got off on the wrong foot and I did not trust you, I swept my quarters for active scanners." She crossed her arms. "You will please," she went on with careful emphasis, "not ever enter my quarters without knocking and requesting admittance, and waiting for my express permission to enter. Is that dear, Simeon?"

"I apologize, Channa. Of course you're right. I got careless, all those years with Tell."

"As to the quality of my taste . . ." she said in a voice even more brittle than before.

Oh please, he thought, for once, just once, shut up and let it go. 

" . . . it's none of your business." She glared at him. "Given your own preference for interior decoration," she said indicating his sword and dagger collection, "I'd say you have titanium gall to make snarky remarks about mine."

"But I like it. I said I liked it!"

"And what," she continued unheeding, "would someone with such a morbid fascination with humanity's lapses into ritualized slaughter know about romance anyway?"

Simeon was dumbstruck. "I've never . . . thought of my interest in military history as a 'morbid fascination.' I am genuinely fascinated by strategy and military tactics. But to call it morbid, well, romance and morbidity have a long and interesting relationship."

She sighed with exasperation. "Let's just say that while both can be morbid, romance and militarism make uncomfortable . . ." and she winced " . . . bedfellows."

"Channa, some of the most romantic people in history have been military personnel. Doesn't the very word 'warrior' conjure up romantic images?"

She shook her head discouragingly. "Not to me!"

"Not even 'knights in shining armor?' "

She groaned. "Look, Simeon, it's late and I'm tired. Let's just say that I don't like my privacy invaded at any time, by anyone." Her lips curled in a slight rueful grin. "But I think I overreacted a tad. Especially when you made fun of my decor."

"Well, you might wait till you're actually being made fun of before you start clawing pieces out of people."


"Romance has its place," he murmured.

She smiled sardonically and raised one eyebrow. "With all due respect, Simeon, I doubt that romance has crossed your mind. Real, genuine romance, with its aspects of tenderness and sentiment are, if you'll excuse me, beyond your ken."

There was more challenge than honest regret in her voice, and he took offense. "Because I'm a shellperson?" he asked, fairly purring with suppressed anger.

Channa's jaw dropped. "N-no, of course not!" she said, stammering slightly. Then she caught herself and shook her hairbrush at him. "What a nasty, evil, slimy debater's trick! You know perfectly well that I never even thought of that! What I meant was that so far in our acquaintance, you have yet to demonstrate that you are sensitive, or idealistic or . . . well, tender. Passion, now—I think you've very effectively conceptualized raw, basic, animal passion. Which does not exist in the same universe as romance."

"Let me tell you something, Ms. Hap. I'm well aware that romance happens in the mind and the soul and the heart. I know that it isn't necessarily a physical thing. Remember Heloise and Abelard . . ."

"Great warrior couple, were they?" she asked smiling.

He sighed to himself. What do they teach them in university these days? "Not they, milady. I see I must persuade you beyond any measure of doubt. You've put me on my mettle." She cocked her head at him. "I shall court you, belle dame sans merci, and win your heart."

She laughed aloud in astonishment. "You've got your work cut out for you. I may like the romantical—as decor—but I'm no dewy-eyed sentimentalist and not at all susceptible."

"Oh, so you're seduction-proof, are you?"

"I'm not even going to dignify that with an answer. Goodnight, Simeon."

"Goodnight, Channa," he said quietly as she left without another word.

Not susceptible, eh, Happy baby? Well, get ready for it, sweetheart—you're in for the time of your life! You want romance? I'll give you romance, little lady, in such subtle and clever portions, you won't realize that you're being wooed by a very personal phantom lover.  

He settled down to consider his strategy. Softshells could rely on physical attraction for starters; that was impossible for him, of course.

How to begin, he wondered. Well, with Channa, I suppose I could start with deft cooperation and nineteenth-century manners. I'd better look into the mores of Hawking Alpha Proxima Station and see what their courting customs are. Nothing so blatant as gifts right off, hmmm. Ah-ha! Music! After all, it hath charms to soothe the savage beast, or breast. Both apply in this case. Now, I'll just access her musical repertoire—which doesn't invade her privacy, merely her overt records . . . 

* * *

"Hey, Simeon, what's going on?" Joat said, turning from her breakfast to stare at his column.

"Going on, my dear?" Simeon said.

"Yeah, going on. All of a sudden you're so smooth you'd make a wombat puke, and Channa looks as if she'd just found a dead body, a long-time dead body."

Channa snorted suddenly. Since she was in the middle of a mouthful of coffee, the results were spectacular. Joat silently offered her a napkin as she coughed and sputtered.

"You're imagining things," Simeon replied, with a touch of asperity. He shifted into a mellow tone: "Are you all right, Channa?"

* * *

"What's wrong with Simeon?" Patsy asked, sotto voce. They were in the shadow of an impeller pump, and the vibration would make voice-pickup difficult.

"Wrong?" Channa said, frowning.

"Yeah, he's agreein' all the time."

"Now that you mention it . . ."

The woman from Larabie shrugged. "Don't look a gift horse in the mouth, Chan. But, if you do, check the teeth fer file-marks."

* * *

Chief Administrator Claren gave a final keystroke.

"That's the projections matched against the past five years," he said. "You'll note turnover is a little high, but on a transit station, it's difficult to keep people."

Channa frowned. "I'd think it would be easier here," she said. "More big-city facilities."

"Also easier to leave," Claren pointed out, nodding towards the large passenger terminal.

"We should do more in the way of social and cultural activities," Channa said. "The contingency fund would cover it, and in the long run, such amenities pay for themselves and then some. There are a lot of mining and exploration sectors around here"—which was exactly why SSS-900-C had been established in the middle of the cluster of mineral-rich fifth-generation suns—"and their people need leisure activities just as much as their equipment and ships need servicing. The Perimeter's a gold mine for its owners and for the station, to name your only real star attraction. If the outposters could get entertainment and commissary supplies in a range from cheap to expensive, they wouldn't need to travel further in towards Center. This whole area would take a big step further toward being part of the Central Worlds and not just a primitive frontier zone."

"Exactly, Ms. Hap," Claren said. He was a mousy-looking little man, with thinning black hair combed back over bis head. He dressed like a humorist's caricature of a bureaucrat, down to the keypad holder on his belt. "It's what I've been saying for years."

"What do you think, Simeon?" Channa asked.

"Sounds good to me," the affable city manager replied.

Claren coughed violently; one of his hovering assistants scurried forward with a glass of water.

Channa waited until he had recovered. "Surprise you, did he?"

"Surprise me? Me? No, no, something caught in my throat. Air's dry, I think." He hastily swallowed another sip of water to reinforce that interpretation. "Now, here," and his fingers flew over the key of his terminal, "are some plans we've had pending, with the projected—"

"Answer the question, please, Administrator Claren," she said firmly but quietly. She might be new, but she could recognize "sign now, please," when she heard it.

"Well, ah, this isn't the first time these specific projects have been put forward," Claren said. "But, ah, there has never been a sufficiently positive reaction to implement the schemes. Until now, that is. It's a pleasure to work with someone who can appreciate planning ahead and is so naturally decisive. Ahhhhh, oh dear." His voice trailed off.

Channa's took on a steely note. "Changed our mind, have we, Simeon?"

"This station wasn't in a position to plunge into such an ambitious project. Much less have the incentive," Simeon replied smoothly. "Tell was a roughneck like me. Neither of us had the background for coordinating such enterprises. Here, anyway."

Channa turned, subliminally aware of something moving through the air behind her. It was a message tray, floating at elbow height. The domed top folded back, revealing chilled glasses and a frosted, uncorked bottle of a fine vintage. A single red rose lay on the white napery. Her lips grew thin but, as she saw Claren watching her closely and knew that she must be flushing, she controlled her impulse to sling the bottle at the sensor that linked Simeon to this office.

"Yes, by all means let us drink to the success of this undertaking, Claren," she said and began to pour.

Facetiously, she lifted her glass towards the sensor and sipped, mildly surprised at the dry crisp taste. "Hmm. Not a bad white! Didn't know you had it in you, Simeon."

"I'm not without a few talents of mine own," he replied, wishing there was an imager in Claren's office so he could project the suave smile he was feeling.

She downed the rest of the glass, replacing it on the float. "If you'd just transfer the plans to my terminal, Administrator Claren, I can peruse them at my leisure." Then she strode purposefully out of the office.

* * *

She was storming by the time she got to their lounge. "I bet you think you were being subtle! Subtle like colliding with an asteroid, you—" She swung around to the screen which he had prudently left blank, giving her anger no focus. Then she began to hear the sounds filling the room.

Simeon delightedly watched her expression gradually alter from livid to astonished and finally to enchanted as the lilting sounds of the Reticulan mating croon filled the lounge. The sounds were long, low, dreamy. There was no formal melody, but somehow the theme suggested the stillness of deep forest and dew falling like liquid diamond in streaks of sunlight dazzling through the leaves.

Channa stood still for a moment. She winced slightly as the door closed with an audible swoosh, annoyed that any other sound marred the perfection of what she was hearing. Then, stepping carefully, as though fearful that cloth brushing against doth or shoe against carpet might cause her to lose a precious second of the complex music that surrounded her, she walked to a chair. She sat down so slowly she seemed to float down to it, scarcely seemed to breathe as she absorbed the music

My first impression of her was correct, Simeon thought, watching Channa. She is a fox! Then, peering more closely, he wasn't so sure, for her eyes were half-closed, starred with tears, and his acute vision let him see the skin of her face relaxing, smoothing out. She doesn't look that foxy now! In fact, she looks kinda . . . sweet. 

When the croon had drifted off into a serene silence, she sat without moving. Then she closed her eyes and slowly leaned back, clasping her hands before her. When she opened her eyes, they shone and her voice was husky.

"Oh, Simeon . . . I can forgive you a lot of tricks for that! I might even kiss you. In appreciation, of course. That was so beautiful. Thank you," and she smiled.

Simeon modulated his voice so that there was a "smile" in his tones when he answered her. "You're welcome. Do you happen to know what that was?" He didn't think she was likely to, but he kept that out of his tone.

She wiped an eye and said, "I've never had the opportunity to hear one, but that has to be a Reticulan croon."

"You're right about that," Simeon said with satisfaction. "But I'll bet you'll never guess who performed it." He tried hard to keep any smugness out of his voice.

"Now, how would I know who sang, much less who could, beside Reticulans, and they're on the other side of this galaxy. Oh! It couldn't be . . ." Her eyes went round in awed surprise. "Not Helva? She's supposed to be able to sing them. But . . . you . . . and Helva, the ship who sings?"

"None other." Simeon was gratified by her reaction.

"You know her?"

"Indeed I do," and Simeon allowed himself to speak with considerable pride. "She drops by every now and then to visit—" he couldn't resist a little pause for effect "—me. We discuss and exchange contemporary music from all parts of the galaxy. Since there are so few recordings of Reticulan croons—which we shellpeople enjoy so much—she herself made me a gift of this one." The memory of his thrill at receiving such a prize colored his tone.

Channa smiled in response. "Finally read my personnel tape, did you?"

"Well, I'd love to say that I'm just terribly perceptive, but music's mentioned as a significant interest. I just thought this particular recording might please, too."

"Oooh," she said with a quaver in her laugh, "music hath charms department? As you said not long ago," and there was an edge of combined sarcasm and chagrin, "you have a few talents." Then she added brightly, "Do you sing, too? That's not mentioned in your personals."

Simeon made a throat-clearing, clearly self-deprecating sound. "I am not like Helva and make no claims to musical discrimination. I listen to what I like, but I don't know if I'll like something until I hear it."

"So what else have you heard and liked?" she asked, relaxed in the afterglow of the beautiful croon. "Besides rockjack, that is?"

His tone was embarrassed. "I really don't like Rant much. I just got used to it, you know. The guys on those early mining belt assignments I had didn't play anything else. Most of what I like turns out to be classical or operatic."

"Me, too," she said, smiling towards his column with a kindliness he had not seen in her before. "Well, if Helva liked you enough to give you that superb Reticulan recording, and you actually admit to a preference for classical and operatic, perhaps we should call a truce?"

"A truce? Do we need one?"

She narrowed her eyes. "In a manner of speaking, we do. We have struck a few sparks." She grinned. "A mutual appreciation of music is so far probably the firmest common ground between us. Halfway through secondary school, I realized that my best friends were also my choirmates." She leaned toward the column, with the first intimacy she had so far shown him. "We used to produce and cast ghost operas."

"You did what?"

"We'd choose a subject or theme, and a composer, then select a cast. The rules said that composer and cast have to be dead."

"Really? How bizarre!" Simeon paused to consider the notion. "Do go on."

"We'd start with . . . the name of this opera. Say, 'Rasputin.' Have you heard of him?" The merry tone of her voice was subtly teasing, challenging him.

"Of course, I have. He's often credited with being the indirect cause of a successful revolution."

She regarded his column with a wry expression. "You would know about him if he caused a war, wouldn't you?"

"Do we, or don't we have a truce?"

"We do," she said, holding up both hands in surrender.

"Who writes this 'Rasputin' opera?"

"Oh, Verdi," she said instantly. "Such a grand theme as well as that particular time would appeal to him. Don't you think? Now, you tell me who should play the lead."

Simeon accessed the necessary historical information from his files. "In the available likenesses of him, Rasputin has enormous eyes and a riveting gaze, so we want a singer who's physically powerful and dramatically able to do justice to such a role. How about !Tlac Suc, the Sendee tenor?"

"Eh . . . he does have a compelling gaze, I grant you, and his eyes are large. But don't you think he has a few too many of them? Besides he's only retired, not dead."

Simeon flipped back a massive leap in the research file. "Um, Placido Domingo?"

"I know of him! He lived in a time blessed with great tenors. He's perfect! Tall, lean, big brown eyes and what a voice. Nice choice, Simeon."

"And he's dead, too."

"I can see it now," she said, standing suddenly and clutching histrionically at her throat. "They poison him, you see," and then she flung her arms wide, "and he sings! They stab him," she mimed a thrust to the bosom, before flinging her arms wide again, "and he sings! They drown him," she flapped her arms as though splashing frantically, then placed both hands on her heart, "and he sings! They shoot him," she staggered to Simeon's column and leaned her back against it.

"Channa, he's got to stop singing sometime."

She raised a finger, "Sotto voce, he sings, 'it is over.' " She slid down the column into a graceful art-deco position, "And he dies." Her head flopped forward and her hands dangled loosely from her wrists.

The com chimed and the screen cleared, allowing communications specialist Keri Holen an unobstructed view of Channa slumped at the base of Simeon's column. "Oh! What's hap . . . I mean, Ms. Hap! Simeon, is she all right?"

Channa was instantly on her feet, palm up in a calming gesture. "I'm fine," she said, serenely adjusting her tunic blouse. "What is it?"

"Uh . . . a message from Child Welfare on Central, from a Ms. Dorgan. If it's convenient, she's scheduled a conference call for 1600 today."

"Perfect," Simeon said, "tell her thank you," and he broke the connection.

"I thank the powers that be that wasn't Ms. Dorgan herself," Channa said nervously.

"I like that 'if it's convenient,' " Simeon said, musingly. "Channa, have you ever replied, 'No, it's damned inconvenient?' "

Channa regarded him with a singularly blank expression. "No, actually I haven't. But then, in my branch of the service, it shouldn't ever be!"

* * *

Simeon studied Joat nervously, wondering if they should have dressed her differently. All the other children her age wore the same shapeless clothes, disgusting and often raucous color combinations, but not necessarily what the prudent guardian would recommend for this kind of interview. The com chimed.

Too late, he thought. Channa seemed calm, but then Channa always seemed calm. Odd when she can exude such depths of hostility. . . . Still, she always did them with a controlled and icy demeanor. Yeah, Channa was fine. Joat's hands were clasped in her lap. Poor kid, her knuckles are white. But otherwise she seemed composed. I'm fine, too, he thought. I'm not calm, but I'm fine. 

Ms. Dorgan studied them from the screen, like a teacher assessing a class of delinquents, then smiled, a tight, superior little smile. Her hair was gray, cut short, combed in a simple disciplined style. She wore a severe dark blue suit with a prim white blouse and no jewelry. The view of background behind her was official and equally unsoftened by anything even remotely unofficial.

I'll bet she starches her bras, Simeon thought. He remembered Patsy Sue using that expression: entirely appropriate right now.

Ms. Dorgan nodded to Channa, then fastened her cold little eyes on Joat. "Hello, dear," she said in syrupy tones. "I'm Ms. Dorgan, your case-worker."

Joat's face had hardened to wariness, her whole body going rigid. Simeon wondered how his nutrient fluid had suddenly gone so cold, but he didn't dare divert an erg of his attention away from these proceedings. He didn't even dare reassure Joat. She mumbled a barely audible "hello" in response.

"Well, dear, you made some very impressive scores on the tests. Did you know that?"

A nearly inaudible "no" answered her.

Ms. Dorgan glanced down at something below the screen's range, and then her right hand became visible, probably pressing the button to scroll her file forward.

"You are, however, considerably behind your age group in a good many subjects, with the exception of mathematics and mechanicals, where you positively excel." That much was said with some genuine enthusiasm. "You've no idea the excitement you've generated in some quarters. I think you may now anticipate a much brighter future than your past may have led you to expect, dear."

Simeon spoke for the first time, keeping his promise to his protégé. "Joat wants to study engineering. You obviously concur that she has a unique talent in that field."

Ms. Dorgan's studied smile wavered and the tendons on her neck stood out with the strain of not obviously peering around the room. "You are the . . . shellperson?" She seemed to hold her thin lips away from the word as though it might soil them. Her eyes roved between Channa and Joat as though hoping one of them might be ventriloquising the male voice.

"Yes. I am Simeon, the SSS-900-C. I'm applying to adopt Joat as a full daughter and full relation."

Ms. Dorgan's hand delicately brushed a strand of hair back into place.

"Yes, well, as to that," she raised her brows as though surprised that he had spoken at all, "you realize that other prospective parents have put in applications for children with Joat's potential. We usually give preference to couples." There was a faint emphasis on the final word. She fingered her collar nervously. "In Joan's case . . ."

"Joat," said Joat, Simeon and Channa in unison.

"Joat's case, I've shown her file to a quantum-lattice engineer, who is a professor of my acquaintance, and he immediately expressed an interest in her. He's extremely enthusiastic about tutoring someone of such promise. He's married, too, on a life-contract with a poet. Such a situation would have many advantages for the child."

Simeon watched Joat's face go white. "As a station manager, I am intimately acquainted with a variety of sciences, including regular updates on state-of-the-art, so I am quite capable of tutoring her, on the practical level she prefers, in any specialty that interests her. Relax, Joat. Ms. Gorgon's merely mentioning options and possibilities."

The case-worker loudly cleared her throat. "My name, Station Manager Simeon, is Dorgan, with a D. Which reminds me, Joat, somewhere on the application, ah, here it is, it says that your name is an acronym for 'jack-of-all-trades.' Where 'Jack' was a gender-inappropriate first name, 'Jill' was substituted. How would you feel about being called Jill?"

"About the same as I'd feel about being called shit," Joat replied, every inch the belligerent corridor-kid now, scornful and angry; no trace of her earlier diffidence remaining. "And I wouldn't answer to it 'cause it's not my name."

"Joat!" Channa gasped.

"Don't you see it, Simeon, Channa?" Joat said, her blue eyes sparkling with contempt. "This is all a joke! This ol' Ms. Organ . . ." 

"Dorgan, if you please."

" . . . bitch has made up her mind. What are we wasting our time and credit talkin' to her for?"

"Calm down, Joat," Simeon said. "Let's not jump to conclusions yet. Ms. Dorgan, although I have unlimited communication links, my time is heavily scheduled, and I was assured by the authorities that this was merely a formality. Shall we move to settling the details now?"

Slightly pink in the cheeks, Ms. Dorgan took a deep breath and released it in a small huff.

"I can't believe that you would persist in this application, knowing that a human couple is interested in the child. It would be one thing if no one wanted her, but that is not the case. In the first place, since she's at a very sensitive stage of development, there is no way that someone like you could appreciate what she's going through."

"Because Simeon is male?" Channa asked quietly.

"Because he is a shellperson. My dear Ms. Hap, as a professional brawn, you are surely well-acquainted with the peculiarities of these persons. Why deny that they are practically a different species? With no real understanding of what it's like to be independently mobile? How could he possibly raise an active, growing child?" The slight emphasis on the two adjectives made Channa clench her teeth in disgust. Dorgan's question was also rhetorical.

"Well, now, Joat," Simeon drawled, heavily borrowing from Patsy Sue again, "I guess you were right. Ms. Gorgon had made up her mind before she saw us."

"That's Dorgan," the case-worker said, leaning heavily on the "d."

"Toldja," Joat said, "ol' Ms. Organ's already decided."

"Dorgan. Dorgan. DORGAN!"

"Stop it! All three of you." Channa cast her glare over Simeon's column, Joat's flushed face, and finally settled it on the Child Welfare representative. "You have some very strange ideas about shellpeople, Ms. Dorgan, with a D. My advice would be to consider carefully before you make any more bigoted remarks. I particularly resent your denying Simeon his intrinsic humanity. I've never met a shellperson who wasn't at least as able and responsible as a softperson. And indisputably more ethical! In fact, your remarks indicate active prejudice on your part. Prejudice which is, I might remind you, legally actionable."

Ms. Dorgan raised her chin. "There's no need, no need at all, Ms. Hap, to make threats. No doubt it is due to your long association with such persons that you no longer consider them . . . abnormal." Before Channa could get over sputtering at that, the case-worker smiled smugly. "In the child's best interests, I'm afraid that I shall have to deny this petition. I shall make arrangements for her transport to Central, where, after a short stay at our orphan facility, she will no doubt be adopted by a proper family." Still smiling she broke the connection.

"Well?" Simeon almost shouted into the ensuing silence. "You're not going to let her have the last word on this, are you?"

"Don't she have it? Far's this orphan child's concerned?" Joat demanded bitterly. "I knew this'd happen. I told myself this'd happen. But you two trained brains were both so damned sure." She sneered as she counted off her points. "You knew just where to go and just who to talk to and just what to do. But you know what? You don't know ANYTHING! But after all, how could you?" she asked her eyes beginning to fill with tears. "Everything's always gone your way. Everything's always just been handed to you." She started to sob. "Shells, education, food, a living place. Well, they don't get handed out, lemme tell ya. And look what you've done to me! Now they know I exist and where I am, and they're coming to get me! For all I know, that lattice engineer wants to play diddly on my lattice work. Only he's human and a professor and's got an 'in' with her. You got me into this, but I'm sure not waiting for you to get me out. I'm not goin' anywhere with nobody I don't want to!" Her voice had reached scream level before she pivoted and ran from the lounge.

"Joat!" Channa moved to follow her, but Simeon closed the door in her face. "Simeon!" she said in disbelief.

"Let her go, Channa. What could you do now? Lock her in her room until they come for her?" Channa looked as though he'd struck her. "She needs time and privacy. She needs to feel in control again. Let her alone."

"There are things we can do, Simeon. I'm not going to let that woman win. We can go over her head in Child Welfare. We can appeal to SPRIM and Double M for help. You taped that interview, didn't you?"

He laughed, for once pleased to see her so combative. "Yes, I did, and won't the Mutant Minorities and the Society for the Preservation of the Rights of Intelligent Minorities dump on La Gorgon for her attitudes! Good thinking, Channa. I'm this very moment apprising them of this incident. Y'know, this could even be fun."

* * *

Late that night, Simeon noticed that a light came on in Channa's quarters. He had assiduously kept to his promise, but the faint glow under the door was plainly visible. Well, to anyone with photonscanners like mine, he amended. Still, he was observing the principle of the thing.

Channa heard a chiming sound and, after a surprised pause, called out, "Hello?"

Simeon's voice, carefully adjusted to low audibility, answered from the lounge, "May I come in?"

She smiled and laid aside the reader she'd picked up. "Yes, you may."

She lay in bed, looking tousled and sleepy. Simeon thought that she looked little more than a kid herself. "Can't sleep?" he asked.

She shook her head, "I keep thinking of Joat, alone down there in the dark."

"Joat's been asleep for hours."

"How do you know that? She might still be crying her heart out for all we know."

"I know because I can hear little Joat-sized snores issuing from one of her favorite haunts."

"She didn't turn on her sound-scrubber?"

"Nope. She was upset!"

"No, she was thoughtful. She is becoming more civilized if she didn't want us to worry." And Channa laughed in relief, then sobered. "She's such a good kid. She really didn't deserve Gorgon on her case. Look, Simeon, B & B's are considered couples by Central Worlds. Our contracts tend to last a lot longer than mere marriages. If I stayed on for say, ten years and applied for joint custody with you, most of Gorgon's objections would be invalid."

"Joint custody, huh? Well, Gorgon can't say a female brawn isn't a good role model. I've got comlines hotting up, but what I don't know is how many others at Child Welfare suffer from Dorgan's prejudice. I'd hate to see you make such a 'supreme sacrifice' for nothing. Fighting Ms. Gorgon through the bureaucracy won't turn us to stone, but it could bore our brains into oatmeal."

Channa gave a little "tsh" of scorn. "It's not like I've got anywhere else to go."

"I know, I heard about Senalgal. Sorry, Channa. I know what it's like to lose an assignment you'd sell your soul to get."

She raised her eyebrows inquiringly. "What was it for you, if you don't mind my asking—a planet-based city, a scout ship? Or maybe you looked as high as a whole planet?"

"I've got a city, more or less. Definitely not a scout ship. The brain/brawn scout ship is too claustrophobic and limited. I like dealing with a lot of people. I enjoy the give and take of various personalities and situations. More challenge on a station this size. I love being challenged."

"Not a city, not a ship. You're after a planet?"

"No, I wouldn't want that much responsibility. And a planet's too sedentary. But a ship, definitely, so I could get around a lot."

"Ah," she said, making the connection between his leisure interests and the only ship assignment that applied, "a Space Navy command-ship." She cocked her head. "Are you in line for one?"

"Theoretically, yes. I've applied and what do I get? 'You're too important where you are,' " he began in a singsong monotone, " 'You're too perfect where you are, there's no one else as well-trained as you are for such a highly specialized situation.' I've always," he added wryly, "considered SSS-900-C to be a temporary assignment."

"Forty years is temporary?"

"With shellpersons, of course it is."

"Maybe we aren't so imperfectly matched after all." She paused a moment, then in a flippant tone added, "With Joat to sweeten the deal, I don't think I would regard staying here as a 'supreme sacrifice.' Ugh! Orphan facility, indeed! Pick her up? Like some sort of a package?" She peered out of her room towards his column. "Do you think we stand a chance of reversing Dorgan's decision?"

Simeon wouldn't have taken bets, but he had barely tackled the task. On the up side, he felt something deep inside him beginning to uncoil. "With a B & B partnership, we have a chance. I appreciate your willingness to consider one very much, Channa. Right now though, dear lady, why don't you sleep on it?"

She sighed. "Mm, but I'm restless, and," she played with an edge of the reader, "there's nothing I really want to read."

"Then," he said, gently dimming the lights, "I shall recite a bedtime poem for you. Settle in." He waited until she had scooted down and adjusted covers and pillows, smiling as she did so. He began, "We who with songs beguile your pilgrimage . . ." Her eyes closed, and gradually she drifted off to sleep as Simeon recited.

" . . . softly through the silence beat the bells,

Along the golden road to Samarkand."


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