They stood frozen, the others watching Inea as her shock turned to love and then to disbelief overlaid with unshakable conviction. At last she whispered, under the rush of the air conditioning. "Darrell?"
He couldn’t deny his born name.
"Darrell Raaj," she asserted so softly only he could hear. Her eyes burned with awe and fear.
The fear finally broke through his paralysis. Unable to summon Influence to mask his words, he answered in the same almost inaudible tone, "Inea, don’t betray me. Please. I beg you. Don’t. By everything we’ve ever meant to each other, don’t."
She blanched, barely mouthing, "It is you!"
For a moment, he thought she’d faint, and he could catch her and sweep her away to get some fresh air. But no, she was made of sterner stuff. He should have known that.
Recovering, she glanced about at everyone then buried her face in her hands as if embarrassed, saying aloud, "I’m so sorry, Dr. Shiddehara. You remind me of someone I knew a long time ago. Perhaps he was a relative of yours?"
It was Titus’s turn to fight off a swoop of lowered blood pressure. Even in this gravity, his knees sagged. Until this moment, he had not realized how very much he loved Inea Cellura. He found his voice at last. "Later, we can discuss the resemblance in detail. But right now"—his voice broke, and he coughed to cover his emotion— "right now, I think we’d better get to cleaning this up. Shimon, I’ll want to see you in my office. Uh" —he glanced around in a feeble attempt at humor— "I do have one, don’t I?"
Everyone laughed, and it broke the tension.
"This way, Titus," said Shimon, leading him to a corner where partitions made of two sheets of flexcite with levelors sandwiched between them created an office around an executive desk and two chairs. The levelors were open, making the partitions transparent. There were empty shelves and files in dreary government-issue tan, and a Cobra terminal.
Titus collapsed into his chair, which had a back higher than his head. He concealed his shaking hands from Shimon and glanced out through the partition. Inea leaned heavily against a desk, watching him with big, round eyes. Then she shook her head and turned away to help clean up.
Titus gestured, "Close the levelors,would you Shimon?"
The Israeli stroked the control and the walls opaqued.
"Shimon, I have to report to Carol, so I have to know exactly what’s happened and how it affects our goals." He rummaged in the drawers but found no paper, and turned on the Cobra link. "Does this thing have a word processor?"
"Inea shook you up, didn’t she?"
"Inea…" Still dazed, he answered automatically, as if reciting a lesson. "Is that her name?" Since his death, such dissembling had become an ingrained habit.
"Inea Cellura. Her degree’s in astronomy. Worked at Arecibo. She’s supposed to be your assistant, but she’s been running the observatory station all by herself for weeks now. I wonder who she mistook you for?"
"Would you expect me to know?" She’d always scorned his passion for astronomy because his fascination with the possibility of other life forms in the galaxy disturbed her. Obviously, she’d changed. A knot of apprehension which he hadn’t even known was there unraveled and he wiped a sheen of cold sweat from his upper lip and pulled the Cobra toward him.
"If I were you," mused Shimon, "I’d like to be the one she mistook you for. She’s maybe not so pretty, but with the pretty ones who get you physically, it fades fast. With her kind, it gets better each time."
Not pretty? How could anyone say she wasn’t pretty? "You’ve slept with her?" I’ve no right to be jealous!
"Not yet. But if you want her don’t worry about me. She’s not Jewish and maybe not even available." He glanced at the shut blinds. "Except maybe to you."
Shimon will be a good source of contacts if it ever comes to that. As revolting as the idea was, the thought gratified Titus, for it signaled that he was still able to think defensively. He couldn’t afford a careless move now.
Titus’s fingering produced the Cobra’s standard word processing prompt under a Quill trademark which faded to the seal of Brink’s Security and the request, "Please enter your security clearance, personal code, and passwords."
Irked, Titus hit ESCAPE but the thing bleeped at him.
"Yeah," commiserated Shimon, "you must secure everything—even grocery lists."
Titus complied and began taking notes. "The first thing I need to know—my memory, the one I shipped up here that contains my special star catalogue—is it intact?"
"The catalogue and our copy were erased while we were backing it up. I must order a new board before I can reprogram from your backup—after I discover why it did that."
Titus sagged. The backup had been in his flight bag. "I don’t have a backup with me. Make a list of the hardware we need. I’ll obtain a copy of my catalogue. As you’ve guessed, it’s customized for just such a hunt as we’re about to stage. Now, give me a rundown on what happened."
Titus listened, mentally tracing the damage, for there was one question he couldn’t ask. Built into the system, there had been a black box Shimon had been instructed under Influence not to tamper with. It was Titus’s link to Connie on Earth. He had no idea if it could be replaced.
It had been designed for this project, and could send and receive messages hidden in the checksums that ensured the accuracy of all telecommunications. The two computers repeated sequences back and forth and filtered out the data from the noise. Titus’s black box simply preempted several of the repetitions to send Titus’s message, which the computer on the other end discarded as noise but the black box on Earth captured and decoded for Connie’s operatives.
Now it appeared that Abbot’s sabotage had destroyed the device. How could he tell Connie what had happened? How could he get her to resupply him with blood? How could he get her to send someone else to deal with Abbot?
He spent some time berating himself for not predicting Abbot’s swift move. Abbot had, after all, spent the voyage resting and refreshing himself with his new human. He had not arrived hungry and exhausted, but—
Titus’s mind leaped. Abbot had learned something from Mirelle—something about the clandestine project with Project Hail. That had made it necessary for him to gain some time. Rebuilding the device Titus had destroyed was only an excuse. He’d never have taken such a risk for that. But then why did he do it?
Titus had no time to pursue that question. The rest of the day went into assessing the damage and scouring the station for hardware. His computer system was a complex of interlinked units designed to accept, store, and digest the input from all Earth’s observatories, to create and continually update detailed, multi-dimensional maps of space.
Their one small lab room contained more computing power than had existed on all of Earth a decade before. It was designed to become the astrogation and command center of Earth’s interstellar exploration fleet—or battle fleet.
Within four hours, Titus realized they were racing Abbot from storeroom to storeroom, gleaning the dregs he left them. Grimly, Titus began to anticipate Abbot’s moves, and garnered two or three hauls that would chisel days off the repairs. He listed the items he suspected Abbot had swiped out from under them by deleting them from inventory or by misfiling them on the shelves. Later, he’d find them himself.
By the time he left the lab, Titus had requisitioned everything that had to be ordered from Luna Station or Earth. He had a thorough report entered into his Bell 990. And he had an appointment with Carol Colby.
He had spent hours framing his report in such a way that he would not appear, to the humans, to be blaming Abbot for what had occurred but that would signal to any Resident who saw it that he couldn’t handle Abbot.
With Colby, he used all his persuasion augmented only by a touch of Influence. She assigned him a priority level that would override Abbot’s. Whatever equipment his father had not used or altered, Titus just might get back. And to do that, he was prepared to break into storerooms and scour the shelves in person.
As he left the Director’s office, Titus was convinced that this Colby, as she’d boasted, didn’t crumble. She’d set a deadline of two weeks to get Titus’s system up, and she’d put in a direct call to Earth for his supplies. Titus couldn’t begin to estimate the monetary cost of saving two weeks downtime, but an idle crew also ate money like crazy, so the expense of the call was, no doubt, justified.
Turning toward the nearest elevators, Titus knew he had to go out to the alien craft, investigate the medical dome and discover what Abbot had learned from Mirelle. But he was tired, his coordination off so much that his newly learned walking technique deserted him every few steps.
He hadn’t slept since the night before departure. Yet if he did not move swiftly, Abbot would again have the jump on him. On the other hand, like any human, he could make ghastly mistakes from fatigue. He hated to admit it, but Abbot was right. Powdered blood was not as good a restorative as freshly cloned blood, and neither could compete with a human. As he pondered the elevator doors, one pair opened and Inea strode out.
She stopped short, and stared up at his face, weighing, assessing, and finally admitting again, "Darrell."
"Titus," he corrected gently. His eyes feasted on her. All the love was still there, but with something stronger added. He’d never felt like this for a human before.
The lengthy silence was finally broken by the arrival of another elevator, full of office workers arriving for the next shift. Titus had no idea what time of day it was supposed to be. He didn’t even know what shift he was supposed to work.
"Titus, then," she granted. "We’ve got to talk."
He blinked hard. "I’m not ready for this."
"Me neither. I’ve been up for twenty-four hours, and though my feet don’t hurt, I’m exhausted. But I won’t be able to sleep until I get an explanation. You owe me that—don’t you think?"
He wanted to scoop her into his arms and never let her go. "I owe you everything. Where can we talk?"
"My place isn’t far."
"Invite me in," he warned, "and you’ll never keep me out." It’s that way with those of my blood.
"Is that a threat, Da—uh, Titus?"
"In a way. You might change your mind about me." The terror of that thought choked him. Then he told himself he was not the first of his blood to face this kind of ordeal. There were rules for handling this particular interview.
She searched his face again, gnawing her lower lip. In a very quiet voice, she said, "Just tell me one thing. Did you murder that boy they buried in your place?"
His heart shuttered and he checked the corridor for microphones and cameras. In fact, he wasn’t even certain personal quarters were exempt from surveillance. Brink’s was known for thoroughness, and the laws here were ambiguous to say the least. But if the situation was that bad, he was lost already.
"Inea, I swear to you, I did not."
"Then I won’t change my mind. Come on."
She led the way to another bank of elevators, then down into a residence complex. The doors here were closer together than the ones in Titus’s hall, and when she threw open her door, he saw how luxurious his quarters were.
Here, the floor was bare save for two scatter rugs, and the hall window was masked only by blinds. There was no kitchenette. The small desk took up most of the room, even with the bed folded away. One comfortable chair faced a tiny vidcom screen. A cartridge labeled Guggenheim Tour protruded from the recorder slot. But there were a few intensely personal touches. On one shelf, there was an arrangement of moon rocks around a small, artificial bonsai. At the bedside, a macramé hanging made from discarded packing was used to hold the vidcom remote control, a red handled hairbrush, and an array of framed snapshots.
Noticing his expression, she explained, "I don’t spend very much time here. The required exercise in the gym soaks up hours, and I eat at the refectory around the corner. Just down the hall, there’s a solarium with really comfortable reading chairs. The rest of the time, I’m at work."
"Actually, you’ve got a lovely place. Invite me in?" The psychic potential that filled the boundaries of the room was at once enticing and an absolute barrier to Titus.
She tilted her head. "What’s the matter with you?"
Abbot would have thought nothing of Influencing the invitation from her. "Invite me in and I’ll explain."
Exasperated, she burst out, "Will you get your butt in here, before I—"
Titus stepped smoothly across the threshold and closed the door, palming the lock. "Thank you," he said, sincerely. The atmosphere sent ripples of pleasure through him.
Hands on hips, she shook her head at him in wonderment. "All right, you’re in. Now explain."
He thrust aside the delight of just being here, and dropped into the desk chair. "Let me think how to say this." But the first thing the guidelines required was to bring her under Influence so she’d never repeat any of it. I can’t!
"If you didn’t kill anyone, what are you afraid of telling me?"
"Inea, please believe me; you have to believe. I wouldn’t kill a human being. Ever. Can you accept that?"
"Why would I disbelieve it?" She perched on the edge of the easy chair. "Whoever was in your coffin—"
"Inea," he interrupted. "I was in my coffin. I crashed the car. I was sitting right next to you. And I died."
Clearly, she thought him insane. "Look, I don’t recall a thing from that night until I woke up in the hospital and they told me I had a concussion but could go home for your funeral. But now you’re alive. And you’re no Jesus Christ! Obviously, it wasn’t you in the car with—"
"I was in the car. I died. I’m a vampire."
There was sympathy under her dismay now, the kind of sympathy reserved for the hopelessly deluded.
"Do you want me to prove it? Or would you prefer to nurse your doubt until the evidence mounts and you can’t deny it anymore?"
"How could you possibly prove you’re a vampire? Turn into a bat and flutter about the room?"
He laughed. He hadn’t expected such a challenge, yet he should have. He had thought of himself as a vampire so long, that he had forgotten the myths surrounding his kind.
"What’s so funny?"
"The conservation laws! Basic biology! Shape change is impossible. And I mass nearly ninety kilos. Have you ever seen a bat that big? Inea, idiot-love, it couldn’t fly!"
It was his oldest endearment for her. But she was a scientist now. "Inea, I didn’t mean—I’m sorry…"
"No—it was kind of a stupid thing to say. You really believe you’re a vampire? There’s a disease—"
"But victims of it don’t get it by rising from the dead. And that’s what happened to me."
"So you walk at night and suck young maidens’ blood?"
Facetiously, he corrected her. "They don’t have to be so young, and maidenhood isn’t a requisite."
She shifted tactics. "Listen, if it’s kinky sex you want, you’d better find yourself another—"
"Oh, shut up!" he snapped.
She folded into herself, shocked.
Contrite, he offered, "I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have—I mean, I guess I’m just sensitive because—how I live—" Miserably, he finished, "Maybe I just haven’t made my own peace with it yet. They say it takes more than a century."
"Century! God! You really believe it. But you look normal—a little pale, a bit underweight maybe, but normal."
"I am normal. For me."
"And you expect me to believe you’re a vampire? I can see you reflected in the vidcom screen."
"Of course I reflect. I’m solid flesh and blood." It would be easier just to Influence her to believe. But he couldn’t. He had to convince her completely and honestly, and get her free will promise of silence.
"The legends are wrong, but you’re a vampire? Darrell, what kind of a game is this? Are you into espionage?"
"My name is Titus Shiddehara. I had to change it because Darrell Raaj died—legally, anyway. So please call me Titus. It could be dangerous for me if you don’t."
"But you really are the famous astrophysicist? You’re not substituting for him?"
"Yes, I’m really Titus Shiddehara. After I… awakened… and was on my feet again, I went on to college just like I’d planned. Only my name and… lifestyle… has changed."
"All the proof I have is your assertion. Vampires are supposed to wither at the sight of crucifixes. Maybe I could find a Catholic and—"
"I don’t wither before crucifixes or any religious object. I’m not evil. I told you, I don’t kill humans, virgins or otherwise. And I wasn’t created by the devil."
"Then why do you call yourself a vampire?"
"Because my body can regenerate after injuries that would kill a man. Because I can’t live on food, but have to have blood. And… I have other powers."
"Powers? What powers?"
He considered carefully. If there ever could be anything real between them again, he had to be honest now. "I can make you think I can turn into a bat, or smoke, or anything. I can control animals, even wolves." He searched her eyes, watching for rejection. "I can control you."
"Now we’re getting somewhere!" She leaped to her feet and opened the bathroom door to reveal a full length mirror. "Remember how I could never let myself be hypnotized? W.S. had a tough time with my security clearance because of it. You go ahead and make me think you’ve turned into a bat that doesn’t reflect in this mirror, and I’ll believe you."
It’s not the same as using Influence to make her believe me. Still, he felt wrong about it.
She had to believe or her promise of silence would be only a joke to her, not a solemn vow. Or worse yet, she’d consider it her duty to him to have him committed. "Okay."
He exerted Influence, testing her resistance. She was strong, but not remarkably so. In a puff of smoke, he became for her a medium sized bat that fluttered at her head, squeaking, but not reflecting in the mirror.
She flung up her arms and ducked, then peeked up at the mirror. Stunned, she gaped at the empty desk chair.
Getting into the drama of it, Titus went to the middle of the room, summoned a memory of an old Dracula film, then had the bat fly over to his new location, whirl into smoke, and coalesce into a black-caped figure in evening dress. Swirling the cape magnificently to show off its ruby lining, he gave her a courtly bow.
When he rose, she slumped into a faint, floating downwards in the meager gravity.
He dropped the illusion, and knelt beside her, taking her head in his lap. He straightened her body, wanting to chafe her hands and pat her cheeks to wake her up, but knowing that he only wanted to alleviate his own anxiety. She’d come out of it when her blood pressure normalized. The longer it took, the more time her mind would have had to adjust, the better it would be for her. So he cradled her in his arms with a terrible tenderness, surrendering to curious shudders of pleasure.
He didn’t notice when her eyes fluttered open, but then she sighed deeply and murmured, "Darrell…" Her memory surged back, and she shrank from him, starting to twist free of his grasp.
"Inea, it was just an illusion! Think! How could I have turned into a bat! That’s silly! It can’t be done."
"I saw what I saw." Influence always carried a sharp conviction that the senses gave absolute truth. Many humans, when finally convinced otherwise, went completely insane.
"Yes, you saw it. I’m not sure how this power works, but I do know that for you, it really happened." Titus flinched away from the inherent contradictions between his physicist’s knowledge of how things worked, and the pragmatic facts of what he could do to people’s nervous systems.
"Do it again," she challenged, face hardened.
Astonished, he replied, "No. You’re not a toy, or even a laboratory animal, that I can play with your perceptions at my own whim or for my convenience. I’m never going to use that power on you again. I want you to know beyond any doubt that whatever you see, know, or feel is real."
He was lying by omission. No human on Project Station could trust any physical sense while Abbot was around. And Abbot would declare Titus unLawful if he ever discovered what Titus had done here or what he had yet to do. Titus would have to keep Abbot ignorant of Inea. He couldn’t let Inea be stolen from him and marked like Mirelle and then used as a hostage. That’s what Abbot would do if he ever realized what Inea meant to Titus.
At length, she announced, "You must be using some power to make me believe that promise."
"The power of love. The power of honesty. Nothing any human couldn’t use."
She studied him again. "Human. You’re not, are you?"
"Never was. Though my mother was human, my father—not my mother’s husband, but the man who begot me—wasn’t. And I’m not. I didn’t know that until I awakened. It was a terrible shock."
"I can imagine." She sat up, folding her legs into a full lotus and holding her head. "Why do I believe you?"
"I’m glad you do."
"Because you need someone to believe you?"
"No, because I need to convince you so you won’t ever mention this to anyone—not here, and not on Earth. Not anywhere, not ever. As I offer my promise, I need yours."
Her eyes opened wide. "Or you’ll throw a whammy on me so I can’t tell?"
Her reason almost obliterated by shock, she was still capable of that insight. His heart threatened to spill over with love. "That’s what I’m supposed to do," he choked out. "You can imagine why. If—humans—discovered us…"
"How many of you are there?"
He shrugged. "A couple thousand, no more."
"How many humans do they kill each year?"
"I don’t know. Not many. Since about 1850, killing humans has been a crime. It leads to pogroms against us. So the law is vigorously enforced."
This too was a half truth. Deaths of human stringers were investigated by the Death Committee, composed of both Tourists and Residents, but the Tourists usually claimed their stringers died naturally simply from being fed upon. Even if the stringers had been mildly abused, the Tourists usually got away with it if they didn’t leave a mess to attract human attention. Marked stringers were possessions. "Inea, now we live mostly on manufactured blood. Our numbers are not increasing. We’re not a burden on humanity, and we’re not a threat. Your silence would not harm humanity."
"Why do I always believe you? I’m not a credulous person."
"No, but you’ve always known truth when you hear it. Look, pledge me your silence just until you discover that what I’ve told you is flatly untrue." What will I do when she discovers what I haven’t told her?
"You’ll take my naked word?"
"If you’ll take mine. Have I ever betrayed you?"
"You were alive. But you didn’t come back to marry me. You let me think you were dead. You let me go on as if you’d died. But you were alive! How could you—"
"They wouldn’t let me! It’s against our laws. I’d given my word to uphold that law. I had to. I needed the help of others of my… kind."
She melted. "It must have been awful for you."
"There were some bad moments." He got to his feet. "You haven’t promised."
"What will you do if I don’t?"
"I’ll walk out of here and never speak to you again in any personal way. I’ll be nothing but Titus Shiddehara to you. And I’ll probably have to do my best to have you cashiered off the Project, just because I couldn’t stand being so near you and unable to touch you. I love you."
"And you’d use your power to make me forget who you really are?"
Slowly, deliberately, he shook his head. "I couldn’t. I just couldn’t bring myself to do that."
He knew it was true, and he also knew what stakes he was putting on the table. Earth’s whole luren community could be wiped out within a few years because of his scruples.
"What would keep me from blowing the whistle on you? Supposing, of course, that I could find proof?"
"Oh, I suppose you could find proof. You’re awfully clever. But what sense is there in releasing a bloody frenzy of fear and terror, a witch hunt that would burn thousands of humans along with most of us, when we aren’t a real threat, and there is a real problem demanding all our attention, the problem from out there?"
"What do you know about the aliens?"
"Not as much as I want to know. What do you know about them?"
"You’re evading my question."
"I’ve given my pledge; I’m waiting for your promise."
"If you feel so sure my own common sense would keep me quiet, why do you insist I give you a promise?"
"To salve my conscience. I told you, I’m not supposed to let you walk around knowing what you now know and not, uh, gagged by a whammy." He avoided using luren terms because any accidental reference could betray her to Abbot. "Besides, knowing how hard it is to get promises to roll off your tongue, I think I trust your word more than my whammy." He had only exacted one other promise from her: marriage. And then he’d died two days before the actual ceremony.
She smiled nostalgically. "I haven’t forgotten all the times you proposed."
"I haven’t forgotten the one time you accepted."
"Are you going to hold me to it?"
Her expression became so neutral that if he hadn’t been listening with all his other senses, he wouldn’t have known she was throbbing with hope as well as dread.
"Inea, I think we have to renegotiate the contract. After all, even the wedding vows are only until death do us part—and it did. Surely that breaks an engagement, too. But we can start all over again."
"And this gag promise is only until I discover you’ve lied and your people are indeed a threat?"
"That’s all I’m asking."
Grimly, she replied, "That’s all you’re getting. But that much you do have. Agreed?"
"Now what about the question you evaded? The aliens?"
"I’m going to continue to evade."
"Basically, to protect you."
"I’ve already told you. I’ve broken a law for you. You’re walking around with a head full of knowledge you shouldn’t have, and no gag-whammy to keep you silent. One slip and we’re both in an awful lot of trouble."
"How much trouble?"
"Life or death for me. Being gagged for you."
"They wouldn’t kill me? For knowing?"
"For knowing? No." Not legally, anyway. But just let Abbot Mark her, and… He couldn’t finish the thought.
"But they’d kill you?"
"Might. It’s a pretty terrible crime—endangering all of us. They wouldn’t understand—about you and me." He helped her to her feet and resisted the natural embrace, holding her shoulders at arm’s length. He wanted to take her to bed as he’d never wanted anything else in his life. But he wasn’t going to spoil this with haste.
Rationally, he knew the most they could have together would be a few short decades. She’d die of old age while he still seemed young and had to change identities every few years. But right now, those decades were worth his life, and more. It was something he had to have, no matter the price. And if that meant going to bed alone tonight, then so be it.
She broke away and turned to the door. "You’d better go. I’ll get through the night alone. I’ve done it before."
He gathered himself. "But this time, I’ll be there in the morning. And tomorrow night, too, if you like."
"We’ll see. I have to think." She opened the door for him. "I’ll see you in the morning, Dr. Shiddehara."
"Titus," he corrected.
He was left alone in the busy, well-lighted corridor. But where before his mind had been a deep, black silence of fatigue and despair, it was now filled with plans. Where the station had seemed cold, distant, alien, and unreal, it was now home. There was nothing he couldn’t do. It wasn’t elation that buoyed him all the way to the elevators. It was strength.
He felt as refreshed as if he’d slept the day through. The renewal showed in his body. The last of the solar irritation was gone from his skin. A vague headache that had plagued him had disappeared. He felt wonderful.
He sent the elevator up to the surface, and set out to visit the alien craft. No doubt Abbot had been there ahead of him, but he would catch up now, and he would win.
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