The tarmac of the Quito spaceport shimmered in the
harsh sun. The group of scientists bound for Project Hail on Luna milled
about within the red-painted circle under the sign reading, HIGH
SECURITY PASSENGER PICKUP.
They all wore Project Hail flight suits. Most had stacked their identical flight bags, each stenciled with the Project logo, at the place where the people-mover would soon pick them up. Two armed guards flanked the pile.
Dr. Titus Shiddehara, clutching his own flight bag, hovered at the edge of the crowd, with them but not of them. He scanned them, searching for the one who would be his adversary, reminding himself not to squint against the sun.
Remember to act human, Connie had admonished him, and whatever you do, this time keep your objectivity. Titus intended to do just that. Connie had made it very clear when she’d chosen him for this mission that, this time, his life depended on his objectivity.
Far to his left reporters crowded up against a guarded fence. They formed a churning mass of humanity punctuated by the snouts of video and sound recorders.
One reporter, wearing a fashionable red fedora and reflective sunglasses like Titus’s, watched—a stillness amidst their motion.
All around, guards in World Sovereignties uniforms patrolled the fence and surrounded the press box. Titus’s adversary would be inside the guards’ line.
Off to Titus’s right were clusters of squat buildings. Out on the field, launch pads held commercial skytrucks. Project Hail’s skybus was on the main pad, fuming as workers swarmed over it. They’d be boarding soon. If anything was to happen, it would happen now. Yet all was still.
Behind Titus was the civilian passenger terminal. Squinting despite himself, Titus saw two stragglers emerge and cross the tarmac to join the group. He wished his group had not been told to stand out here, in the brutal mountain sun. He couldn’t see any security advantage to loitering so near the fence, and even the layers of sunscreen he’d slathered over his skin didn’t protect him from scorching.
He squatted down to search his bag for his gray silk scarf. It could shade the back of his neck.
"Dr. Shiddehara! Something wrong?" called one straggler. Her voice was rich and melodious, the accent French, and the tone that of an administrator who would now take over. Titus rose to meet Dr. Mirelle de Lisle. She was in her mid-thirties, short and compact, with a healthy complexion. Her hair was bound up in a hat with the Project logo on the band, a hat just like Titus wore except that hers bore the sigil of Cognitive Sciences. She had pushed it back rakishly so the brim framed her face. Titus wore his pulled low on his forehead for maximum shade.
Behind her came an older man with receding white hair and a well-controlled paunch. He carried his flight bag, and with his other hand slapped his hat against his thigh as he walked. Neither of them was the adversary Titus expected.
Titus called, "There’s nothing wrong that I know of."
Mirelle came right into his personal space as the French were wont to do, negligently dropping her flight bag next to his. Titus stepped back. She retreated, sketching a French shrug, then she changed nationalities right before his eyes by simply shifting her body language. "Nothing wrong? But you were scowling so. The reporters offend you, no?"
Occasionally, a reporter’s voice was heard shouting a question or asking someone to turn for the camera. Titus shook his head. "My thoughts were elsewhere."
She readjusted her manner and edged closer. "There are many better things to think about than reporters." She hardly seemed to be the same person who had lectured the group with such austere competency on the use of translators.
And as she advanced this time, Titus found, to his amazement, that he didn’t need to step back. Formality melted away, and he felt a warm intimacy toward this woman.
Abruptly on guard, he focused his attention on her. The adversary could be a woman—but no—Mirelle was human. Yet she was controlling his responses as surely as if she were using Influence—the power of his people.
A rich smile of pure admiration crept over his face. Obviously, Communications Anthropology wasn’t just psychology or linguistics. It included applied kinesics developed into a social power to which even his kind were not immune.
She returned his smile, one hand on her hat as she looked up at him. He fought the warmth she roused in him, unsure which of the women she showed the world was the real Mirelle de Lisle. But he wanted to find out.
The man with her touched her elbow with a proprietary gesture. "Dr. Shiddehara," he said. "Didn’t I hear you tell the press earlier that you’re confident you can identify the alien space ship’s home star?"
Now Titus placed the man: Abner Gold, a metallurgist from the Toronto Institute of Orbital Engineering who had trained at Sandia on weapons research, before World Sovereignties banned such companies. Definitely not my adversary.
"Dr. Gold," greeted Titus. "Yes, given sufficient data on the ship, its occupants, and its approach trajectory, I can narrow the field to a handful of stars—assuming the ship came from its home star." But it couldn’t have.
"So your best calculations could turn out to be wrong?"
"Oh, yes, there’s always—"
"You see, Mirelle? I told you—the Project is a waste of money Earth can ill afford. There’s a good chance we’ll pick the wrong star to aim our message at. But even if Dr. Shiddehara guesses right, we’ve no business wasting money sending a probe out to beam those aliens a message. The ship’s most likely from a long dead civilization, and now there’s no one out there for us to ‘Hail.’"
Titus yanked at his hat brim, turning away to hide the mixed relief and grief that idea aroused. His eye fell on the red hat of the reporter who now stood in the press box, an area inside the gate defined by a rope barricade. He was sighting through his telephoto lens—directly at Titus.
Adjusting the sunglasses he needed in addition to his darkening contacts, Titus turned his back on the reporter and agreed, "Mathematics supports your argument, Dr. Gold. We’ve all seen the calculations based on the galaxy’s size, and the distribution of stars likely to have habitable planets. The odds are against two similar civilizations meeting." But we have met! Only I’m glad you don’t know it. Humans would slaughter those of my blood.
Gold crowed triumphantly, "What did I tell you, Doctor! Even the Project’s chief astronomer agrees with me."
Mirelle slanted an open smile at Titus. "Call me Mirelle, both of you. Everyone here answers to Doctor!"
Gold grinned, offering his hand. "Call me Abner."
She shook ((KM – Shook hands. Not in book, though)) with Gold, then gave Titus her hand. Her touch warmed him in a way that only a human woman could, and he had to remind himself he’d just taken a good meal. "Titus," he offered. Her handshake was firm, brief, and seemed honestly her own. Is this the real Mirelle?
Then she turned to Gold, all brisk, polite professional. "Abner. Titus isn’t an astronomer. He’s an astrophysicist. And—I don’t think you let him finish. Did he?"
"No, I hadn’t finished," Titus said. "If there are people out there, then there’s no reason to assume we won’t encounter each other—because we are looking for each other. And we’ll be in a much stronger position if we go to them than if we wait for them to come to us." Maybe.
"You see, Abner, he does too believe in the Project! You’re the only one who thinks it’s a waste."
"The majority is rarely right." Eyeing Titus, Gold made it a challenge. "I wouldn’t expect an astrophysicist to believe the Project’s hand-waving argument."
"Your problem, Abner Gold," Mirelle declared, "is that you have no faith in people. And if you have no faith in human people, how could you ever make friends with nonhuman people?" Suddenly, as if shocked by her own words, she glanced into Titus’s sunglasses, weighing, measuring.
"Friends with an alien?" scoffed Gold, but Mirelle kept staring at Titus.
Titus entertained the paranoid notion that she knew he was exactly such an alien as Project Hail sought to contact. With her skills, she might have seen something unhuman in him. Was that what all her flirting was about? Testing me?
He recalled another of Connie’s admonitions: The only live elderly agents are thoroughly paranoid agents. On the other hand, certain human women were attracted to his kind.
"Why would anyone want to make friends with an alien?" asked Gold. "Trade, maybe, but friends?"
Mirelle stared at Gold, and shrugged, "Why not?"
Titus focused on Mirelle as he prepared to break the promise he had made to himself when he’d discovered his power—never to use it against a defenseless human. He’d known, when he took this mission, that he’d have to set aside his scruples—but now that the moment was on him, he shuddered.
He hadn’t realized his shudder was visible until Gold grinned. "So you finally see it! If they’re aliens they can’t be friends. The best we can hope for, even if our message is received, is some very expensive trading and a nonaggression pact. But friends are best made at home."
"Au contraire. I have found some of my best friends—and more than friends—very far from home. Titus only just realized how reluctant he is to break a promise."
She’s reading my mind! Titus swallowed his panic. Stage magicians used muscle reading to simulate telepathy and muscle reading was a primitive version of Mirelle’s science. He focused his Influence on her, suggesting that he was just an unremarkable human, not worth such close scrutiny.
He expected a facile rationalization as her interest was shunted aside. Instead, she continued speculatively, "I am most curious—break what promise, Titus?"
"Oh, nothing much." He redoubled his effort to Influence her, assuming she was a Resistive, a human difficult to Influence. A puzzled look flitted across her face. For no apparent reason she glanced over her shoulder.
"Titus, look over there. That reporter—the one in the red hat—is photographing us!" She waved sunnily, posing beside Titus, then she dragged him toward the press box, and in that instant, he knew.
She was a susceptible. She’d already been Influenced heavily, but not marked to warn off others of his blood. She was being used—certainly without her knowledge. He could hardly control the disgust that twisted his lips at this abuse. All thought of his own safety was wiped from his mind as he focused all his strength to free her of that control.
She smiled and chattered brightly, grabbing Titus’s hand and towing him toward the reporter—who now slipped under the rope barricade, pointing his video unit at them.
As he came closer, Titus felt the unmistakable throb of Influence and knew the reporter was controlling Mirelle. Older, more powerful than Titus, he was mockingly declaring himself an enemy, a member of the Tourist faction who didn’t consider themselves of Earth at all.
Titus focused on one of the W.S. guards, an older man with a ruddy complexion and beefy jowls, and attracted his attention. The man took out his phonelink.
Sensing the use of Influence on the guard, the Tourist grinned knowingly at Titus and played his role to the hilt, calling out. "Doctors, do you think it friendly to ‘hail’ an alien civilization from a false location?"
All of earth had been debating that ever since the Project Hail compromise had been announced—to send an instrument package out of the solar system to a remote point from which it would signal the aliens and wait for a reply in order to establish contact without revealing Earth’s location.
"Don’t answer him, Mirelle," commanded Titus, with Influence. "Look at the press pass in his hat band. You don’t want to be quoted in that…"
It almost worked. The Tourist chuckled and said, his words so veiled in Influence that to nearby humans they were inaudible, "Titus, you and all of Connie’s Residents can’t stop us. So you may as well save yourself the ordeal of starving on the moon."
It wasn’t the words so much as the friendly tone that got to Titus. The man believed Titus couldn’t stop the Tourists’ agent from sending their SOS out with the humans’ message, an SOS that would reveal Earth’s location and ask for rescue. To underscore Titus’s helplessness, the Tourist reporter wrenched control of Mirelle from Titus and she replied to the reporter’s question, speaking right toward the Tourist’s microphone. "It’s a terrible duplicity, and when the aliens discover what we’ve done, they may never trust us."
Infuriated, Titus blasted a shaft of Influence at the guard, summoning the man as if there were a riot brewing.
The guard ran, a hand on his sidearm holster. To Titus’s surprise, the Tourist didn’t try for control of the guard. The guard barked at the reporter, "The last press conference was this morning! Get back or I’ll have your pass lifted!" Then he added courteously to the scientists, "Look there! You’re about ready to board now."
Titus, still trying to break through the superior Influence controlling Mirelle, gasped as it cut off. With a grin, the Tourist turned back to the press box and became lost in the crowd, saying to Titus alone, "I don’t know about you, but I’m getting in out of this sun before it fries me."
Mirelle yielded to Titus’s guiding hand. He plucked up his bag from beside hers and Gold’s, still shaking.
A people-mover had pulled up to the scientists and a Project transport officer stood beside it with an electronic clipboard and a bullhorn. "Compartments one through ten, rear cabin, now boarding. When you arrive at the skybus, please step to the inspection station. This will be your last formal inspection, folks, so please be patient with us."
People consulted their boarding cards, while some translated the barely intelligible, amplified words for those who hadn’t understood. The flight bags were heaped on the rear deck of the vehicle. Titus gingerly placed his in a side nook, and then sat where he could keep an eye on it.
They rolled smoothly out across the tarmac to where the gantry still surrounded their skybus. The bright light glancing off the brilliant hull nearly blinded him. His skin, even under layers of clothing, felt singed. He yearned for the shade around the skybus.
The bus would lift them to the Luna shuttle. In a few days, they’d be on the moon and working at Project Station, the lab built around the crashed starship. In a few moments, he’d be beyond the reach of his friends, beyond his supply lines. He still hadn’t identified his adversary, the Tourist who would try to send that SOS to the home planet of his kind.
As they filed out of the people-mover, Titus edged to the front of the line, stopping only when two others glared at him. Mustn’t be conspicuous. He took a place just behind Mirelle and braced against more exposure to the sun.
Titus wondered if his adversary was an Influenced human. A suggestion to plant the Tourists’ device in the humans’ instrument package could lie dormant in a human mind until the right moment. He could not control a shiver of disgust at the idea of using a human to destroy human civilization. When the Residents had called on him, he’d pledged to die rather than allow the Tourists’ SOS to be beamcast, but perhaps his life wouldn’t be enough. He couldn’t get the reporter’s pitying certainty out of his mind.
The line filed along a bright red carpet that led through a sensor arch, past a long white counter, then on to the gantry’s elevator. A smartly uniformed Sovereignties space marine guarded the elevator. The official photographer stood by to take pictures as each of them entered the lift.
Titus had no time to savor the moment when the first of his blood would go back into space at last. The final challenge was upon him. He had to concentrate.
Behind the counters two men and two women stood at computer terminals ready to process the scientists. Security was tight because of threats from humans opposing Project Hail. Titus watched carefully as Mirelle went under the arch and paused on the weighing platform.
One attendant took Mirelle’s flight bag and jacket to pass it under the scope, while another inserted her boarding card into the reader. No problem. Titus’s card would program the computers to register his special supplies as ground coffee and tobacco — old-fashioned vices common at his social level, and permissible cargo.
Then they checked her fingerprints and retina pattern. The prints were no problem. Titus’s had never been altered, but all the computer records from before his "death" had been switched to "Shiddehara," so his new identity was firm. The retina scan was the danger.
He prepared to use Influence on the scanner clerk, so he would not notice the nonhuman anomalies. The computers had already been programmed to identify his retina pattern as Dr. Titus Shiddehara, and he was in fact that person.
Mirelle passed through the check without a bleep and went toward the elevator.
Titus tendered his boarding card, and watched while it was inserted in the reader. Then he handed over his flight bag and jacket, and sauntered through the arch, concentrating on the retina scan technician. He presented his fingers to the plate on the counter while he probed for a contact—and met a blank wall. An immune? The bogeyman to all Titus’s kind was a human immune to the Influence.
As he was passed to the retina scan technician, he remembered the reporter and knew, Not immune, Influenced!
"Ed, come look at this," called the man on the flight bag scanner. "Looks like contraband. Drugs."
The retina technician glanced at the scanner plate. "Would you mind opening the bag for us, Doctor?"
"No, of course not," replied Titus as he edged along the counter to see the plate and fumbled at his keys. "I have the key here." Both men were Influenced, but the reading was genuine—drugs. So that’s what the Tourist meant! While he held my attention, they switched bags! And they had someone reprogram the computer so my card doesn’t force the scanner to show coffee. An image of Gold left guarding the bags while Mirelle pulled Titus away flashed through his mind. There had been uniformed transport officers moving through the crowd carrying things. Idiot! Amateur!
Titus probed for the Influencer who had a grip on these men. It wasn’t the reporter. He was too far away. Then his eyes flew to the last technician in line, the woman who handed back boarding cards and flight bags. Another Tourist! She’d been standing right there all the time, and he’d never even seen her. She was there to keep him from Influencing the technicians to let him through.
With a furious strength born of outrage, Titus struck—and found himself in a pitched battle for control of the two humans hovering over the bag scanner. To any onlooker it must seem as if everyone were considering a minor problem. Titus threw his whole strength into the battle. The Tourist was obviously more experienced at jousting for control of humans, but Titus held and pushed, closing his eyes, ignoring the sweat of fear that coated him, ignoring the constant pain from the light, ignoring the terror of True Hunger that gripped him. But he had never done this before. He had never developed strength and skill for it.
Titus’s grip weakened. The Tourist’s lips twisted in a smug grin. Mirelle’s melodious voice cut across everything. "Titus? Shall I wait for you?" Suddenly, Titus found a new strength. You won’t use them to destroy their own kind!
The Tourist’s grip snapped and Titus had the humans. He could feel their bewilderment as the screen now appeared to register coffee and tobacco, candy, clothing, and reading matter. Eyes locked to the Tourist’s, Titus answered, "I’ll be right there! It’s just a scanner glitch. They’ve fixed it now." He put Influence behind the words.
"Yeah, it’s fixed," agreed the retina technician. "Knew it couldn’t be right. Go on through."
Titus reached over and claimed his card from the slot in front of the Tourist. Never taking his eyes from her nor letting up his hold, he retrieved his jacket from the hopper, hooked it over one shoulder and escorted Mirelle back to the elevator. When they were far enough away, he cut his grip on the two human technicians and abandoned the Tourist to her own devices. He’d scored a victory, but perhaps in winning, he had lost. He had to find out what was really in his bag.
In the elevator, Mirelle said, "What happened? I was so worried they might stop you from boarding."
There was no shred of Influence operating on her now. She meant it. "Government computers—obsolete junk. I hope they’ve equipped Project Station better than that!"
"I don’t know about computers except how to use them, but I don’t want to spend a year on the moon without you."
If she wanted, of her own free will, to flirt, Titus was willing. He could use a friend, especially a delectable, human one. "Nor would I wish to be on Earth while you were on the moon."
The skybus was compartmentalized in case of pressure failure, with five seats to the compartment. The red and gray plush, gimballed seats swiveled to face each other around a tiny table, big enough to play cards.
Mirelle and Titus were ushered to the same compartment, where Titus was given the seat near the porthole. Placing his bag between his feet, he began to crank the shutter across the port to cut the horrible light. As it was closing, he glanced out and noticed a runabout pulling up to the check station, where a long line still waited. The Tourist agent was called over and someone else sent to her work station.
Squinting, Titus recognized the replacement as one of Connie’s operatives. She had countered the move against Titus ten minutes too late. I should have gone to the end of the line, and damn the sun.
The Tourist agent had to retire, leaving Titus’s opponent to the same kind of trial Titus had faced. Despite his burning eyes, he wanted to watch his unknown adversary attempt to board. If he hasn’t already.
"What’s so interesting?" Mirelle leaned over him pushing her face to the porthole.
He brushed his lips against her neck, and she shivered, innocently unaware why her response was so strong, and obviously no longer playing her games. Titus, concentration disrupted, closed the shutter and murmured, "Perhaps the year won’t be lonely—for either of us."
He reminded himself sternly that he wasn’t the least bit hungry. Despite that, their mutual response was intense. Mirelle might be a problem. She was obviously one of those humans who were both susceptible and deeply attracted to his kind. Restraining himself by force, he set about winning her true friendship in the usual, agonizingly slow, fashion.
When Abner Gold was shown to their compartment, Titus excused himself and went to the lavatory, taking his bag with him. When he got the bag open, his heart froze. His packets of powdered blood, his vital supply not just for the trip but for emergencies, had been replaced with plain white packets—half a million in street drugs, no doubt. Getting me out of jail would have kept Connie too busy to send a replacement.
He flushed it all down the toilet, hoping it wouldn’t be noticed when the collector was cleaned. Now he knew what the reporter had meant about starving on the moon. He clamped his teeth over the chattering fear. He would survive on the supply to come in his luggage—if it arrived. He would not let the Tourists know they’d scored.
When he returned to his seat, Mirelle wouldn’t let him stare out the window pretending to brood while he watched the check-in line. She coaxed him into the conversation even though Gold preferred to monopolize her.
Gold was just past middle age, while Mirelle might have passed for almost forty. Titus, however, appeared to be in his twenties instead of his actual thirty-eight. Gold was suffering the normal responses of an older man watching a mature woman flirting with a much younger man. He felt compelled to best Titus at something in front of Mirelle, and Titus knew he had to let him or surely make an enemy.
At this point, the fourth passenger in their compartment joined them. White-haired,with a receding hairline and a middle-aged paunch, he moved as if he’d been commuting to orbit for years and could stow his things and strap himself in blindfolded. He dismissed the attendant with a wave and settled down to read as if there was nobody else there.
Titus found a deck of cards inside his chair’s arm rest. "Anyone like to play cards?"
Gold shrugged. "Let’s see if our fifth plays bridge. We’ll have plenty of time before docking at Goddard."
All the passengers had boarded, and still their fifth did not show. An awful suspicion began to creep over him. If this was the only seat left, and someone was late, chances were good it would be his adversary. The Tourists would want their agent to watch Titus, and Connie would want Titus to watch the Tourist. Not that there’s anything either of us could do at the moment.
He felt and heard the distant clanging shudder and adjustment in air pressure as the hatch was finally closed. There’s no one coming. Connie’s blocked them!
Then he felt a powerful presence nearing, a palpable Influence he was very afraid he recognized.
"Strap in quickly, Doctor," advised the attendant who ushered the tall gentleman in. To Titus she said, "You can take out the cards again when we’re in free-fall . They’ll adhere to the table, or you may keep them on their holders. You’ll find the holders in the chair arms."
Titus barely heard her.
The adversary stood with his back to them, as he doffed hat and jacket. "Sorry to be late." His too familiar voice was cultured, his accent indefinable. "I was detained in traffic in Lima." He appeared middle-aged, but stick-figure thin, as were all of their kind. He turned to face Titus.
"You seem surprised to see me, Titus," he answered, aware of the humans listening. "I admit, I hadn’t expected you’d be here." He added with genuine concern, "Are you sure you can withstand the rigors of this job?"
This was the man who’d dug Titus out of a premature grave and wakened him to his current life by giving of his own blood, the man who had resurrected Titus to the life of a vampire.
Titus swallowed the lump in his throat and chose his words for the humans around them. "I was reliably informed that you had declined the Project’s invitation."
"I had—until I heard you’d accepted." He added with peculiar emphasis, "Now, I’m glad I’m here. I will be able to… observe… your work as no one else of my persuasion."
Titus read him clearly. In his centuries of life, Abbot Nandoha had acquired many specialties. There was no sabotage Titus could do that Abbot couldn’t undo.
And Abbot was saying quite plainly that he would stop at nothing—absolutely nothing—to get that SOS out.
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