As the attendant left, Titus answered, "I’m flattered… Dr. Nandoha." He suppressed a shiver of cold dread and tried to sound implacable. "And I intend to observe your work—as closely as I can." What else could he do? Not only was Abbot much older and stronger than Titus, but he was also his father. Titus was completely in his power. There was no point in his trying to fight Abbot, and Connie knew that.
He suddenly envisioned the quiet battle she had been waging in Quito, trying to delay Abbot, to have him replaced. No wonder she let them get my bag, and almost let them get me! She only had eight operatives planted in the Project, and all of them were on Earth. Titus was the only one to make it to the moon.
To break the tension, Gold spoke up. "Well! It does seem you know each other. Titus, introduce us."
Titus gestured to his far right. "Abbot, the gentleman by the door—I mean hatch—is Dr. Abner Gold, metallurgist. The lady here is Dr. Mirelle de Lisle, Cognitive Sciences. And—" The man facing Titus across the porthole had never said a word. He was totally absorbed in a newsletter printed in cyrillic characters. "I didn’t catch your name, Doctor?"
The man was fiftyish, hawk-nosed, with muscular forearms and painfully short fingernails. "Sir?" prompted Titus. The man finally looked up as if returning from a far distance. He raised both bushy white eyebrows and gazed innocently at Titus, who repeated, "I didn’t catch your name."
"Mihelich, Andre Mihelich."
Titus repeated their names and specialities, but Mihelich did not offer anything further until Titus asked, "Which department are you working in?"
"Biomed." With that, he returned to his newsletter. Since he hadn’t answered to "Doctor," Titus deduced that Mihelich was one of the nurses or techs in the huge medical department that did both research and healthcare. From the few words he’d spoken, he seemed to be a North American.
Into the resounding silence, Titus said, "Doctors, this is Dr. Abbot Nandoha, electrical engineer, circuit designer, and computer architect. Where will you be working, Abbot?"
From his seat across from Mirelle and Titus, Abbot answered, "Generating plant—supplying power to your computers, Titus, and life support to the Station."
He could go anywhere without question. Titus shook off despair. Things couldn’t get any worse now.
"Well!" said Abner Gold. "Bridge, anyone?"
"Actually," said Mirelle, "poker’s more my game. Perhaps if we play poker, Dr. Mihelich will join us?"
Just then, the speakers came on announcing liftoff. Simultaneously, their little table sank into the floor, and their seats swiveled and flattened as the Captain readied for thrust. Soon, the faint murmur singing through the bulkheads became a thick vibration that blotted out all other sound.
Then Titus felt his back forced into a proper posture by the gathering g-forces. He relaxed into it. Though the decibel level reached the upper limits of toleration, the sound had the reassuring coherence of finely tuned machinery. It was not threatening. It inspired confidence. Even awe.
For the first time, Titus was able to open himself to the experience of leaving earth. His ancestors had come here in a far more sophisticated craft. But he and his kind had long worked with humans to create this crude vehicle. And now—at last—they were returning to space.
The emotion was as overwhelming as the sound. He caught his father watching him, features distorted by acceleration. There was a fierce joy on Abbot’s face that expressed just how Titus was feeling. He did his best to return it, and for a moment the extra sense that guided the use of Influence flared between them, a fierce embrace.
As they shared their private triumph, Titus knew Abbot loved him just as Titus’s human father, the man who’d raised him, had loved him. Of his genetic father, Titus knew only that he’d been a vampire, and was probably dead. Abbot had wakened Titus, nurtured him, and now wanted him to share this step in the liberation of The Blood from lonely exile.
The sweet warmth of that embrace stole over Titus, feeding his starved soul. There were so few of them scattered over Earth; they couldn’t afford to let factions split them. They understood one another’s needs, knew each other’s moods, and could rely on each other no matter what the imposition. They were a family. The warmth of belonging was something Titus had rarely felt since his human family had buried him—mistaking him for a dead human.
Until this moment, drowning in the universal roar, helpless in the grip of forces stronger than himself, Titus had not realized how deeply deprived his life had been. There was a hollow ache where there should have been parents, sister, brother, wife, and children of his own.
With a gasp, Titus twisted his head away, breaking the contact with Abbot’s eyes. Wife. It was like a hot knife in his heart. Inea. Two more days and we’d have been married.
He clamped his lips shut. He’d vowed never to say her name again. It was over—done. She was human. And she had seen his body dangling from the overturned car by the seat belt—abdomen pierced by torn metal.
But the emptiness ached and ached, and Abbot knew how to use it. No, that’s not fair. It wasn’t Abbot’s fault that Titus had crashed the car, or that Titus had made the change too young. None of Titus’s problems were Abbot’s doing. He swallowed the emptiness, thrust aside the pain, and looked at Abbot. Summoning a grin to match Abbot’s, he refused to be drawn back into the whirl of emotions. Yet, with the most negligent effort, Abbot could sweep him back into the depths, manipulate him into doing or saying anything.
Only this time, he didn’t. He let the echoing contact fade, giving mercy that truly felt like love. It was genuine love, but still Abbot would kill him, truly and permanently, in order to send that SOS. His loyalty to The Blood—the luren species, on Earth as well as out in the galaxy—was above all personal considerations, and Abbot expected no less of Titus.
As the noise and vibration finally let up and an eerie silence descended, Titus decided he had to fight. Connie, and everyone else—not the least of all, unsuspecting humanity—was depending on him. He had to buy time for Connie to act.
At last, the couches folded back into chairs and a voice instructed them to keep seat belts buckled during free-fall. Attendants would escort anyone who needed to use the facilities. Compliance with this safety rule was a condition of employment on the Project.
Mirelle rummaged in her chair arm. "Ah! A lovely poker deck! Poker, not bridge, no?" The back of the deck showed a glorious view of Goddard Station, with Earth glowing in one corner and stars in the background.
The mysterious Andre Mihelich resumed reading, ignoring Mirelle. Titus asked her, "Poker? You were serious?"
"Of course, Titus. But not to worry—we won’t play for money. We will play for each other’s calculators."
"What!" Gold laughed. "What could an anthropologist do with a TI-Alter programmed for metals analysis?"
She laughed. "That’s the point! You see, the winner redistributes the calculators, deciding who gets whose. To get your own back, you have to work the one you have."
"But I know nothing about metals beyond basic theory," protested Titus, "and less about anthropology or any of the Cognitives."
She gazed up at him, close enough that she might discern his contact lenses now that he’d removed his sunglasses. "Titus, how much do you expect I know about astrophysics?"
Titus eyed Abbot but detected no Influence. "I carry a Bell 990. I doubt you’d know how to turn it on." She could have dealt easily with his old Sharp. He pulled his jacket out from under the seat and produced the 990. No bigger than his palm, it was programmed for all his routine calculations, and had his standard reference tables in ROM with a meg of Project notes. On the moon, it could take him weeks to set up a new 990 or have one reprogrammed from his home files. Abbot raised an eyebrow in sardonic amusement.
They thought they got the calculator with my bag! Score one!
Titus passed the 990 to Mirelle and watched her turn the smooth case over. "I don’t even know how to open it!" From her bag she extracted a stubby looking, thick instrument that she handed to Titus. "Can you make this do anything?"
Titus didn’t recognize the manufacturer. He found the activation switch, but every command he tried produced an error message in a different language. Gold chuckled and reached toward Titus. "Here, let me try."
He had no better luck, and handed it to Abbot who said, "Custom-made, isn’t it? How many languages does it speak?" Abbot, Titus expected, could use anything that had ever been made, all the way back to the abacus, and was proud of it.
"It was a gift—from an admirer. I designed the commands. It’s unique."
Gold fingered his silver cased Alter and the screen lit up.
"Then how are we supposed to figure out how to use it before we get to the moon?"
Abbot put her instrument on the table and spun the table until she could reach it. Taking it, she said, "Watch." She touched a sequence on the pad and the screen lit up with a picture of the Rosetta stone. "I’ll do it again. See? Now each of you show us one easy function." When they had, she added, "All we have to do is remember all three functions until the end of the game, and then whichever calculator we end up with, we can get our own back by making it talk."
"Suppose I get yours but can’t make it show a Rosetta stone?" Gold asked Mirelle.
"Then, Abner, whoever has yours may demand a favor. We’ll say it can’t cost more than the calculator. As soon as the favor is rendered, the calculator is returned. Also—since we all must get to work immediately—it has to be a favor that can be done right away."
Gold eyed Mirelle. "Even a very personal favor?"
"Certainly. This is poker. It gets very personal."
Abbot signaled for a cabin attendant and began unstrapping himself. "If you folks will excuse me for a—"
"Don’t do that!" warned Gold. "They catch you loose and they’ll send you right back to Earth."
Abbot subsided. "Thank you, I had forgotten."
He’s in a panic!
Abbot poked at the signal again.
"Not feeling well?" asked Mirelle. "I have some pills."
"Oh, no—I’m fine."
She cranked the free-fall shuffler. "Mind if I deal?"
Clearly, Abbot didn’t want to play this game, but could find no graceful way out of it short of using Influence to divert them. Abbot himself had taught Titus the cardinal rule: Influence is a last resort. Too much, and people notice their own odd behavior.
Oblivious to all this, Mirelle went on. "We’ll secure our calculators in the middle of the table. There’s a small net around here somewhere—"
While she and Gold searched the edge of the table for the compartment and found the net, passing it around to collect instruments, Abbot fidgeted. Titus had never seen his father squirm before.
When Gold passed the net, Abbot made a business of fumbling with the Varian. Suddenly, Titus knew. There’s a piece of the SOS transmitter in there!
Abbot met Titus’s gaze, and his eyes narrowed. Titus said, "This should be interesting. I’ve never won at poker against you, and I’ve never seen you stymied by a pocket calculator. But there’s always a first time for everything."
Abbot relaxed, and with a cool smile passed the net back to Mirelle. Fastening the net as close to the middle of the table as she could reach, Mirelle announced, "I warn you gentlemen, I do intend to win. I hope each of you does too."
Abbot replied, "Rest assured, I do." And to Titus, he added, "And I shall."
I did it! He’s going to play!
While Mirelle dealt the cards into four holders and spun the table to distribute them, Titus thought hard. Connie had said that the Tourists’ transmitter was being shipped to Project Station in seven components, which would then be assembled to look like a legitimate part of the probe vehicle. In place, it would function as what it resembled, but it would also contain the powerful transmitter that would use the probe’s antenna to send a signal hidden under the humans’ message. Two of the Tourists’ transmitter components would be programmed at Project Station: the targeting computer that would turn the antenna in case the humans sent their signal in the wrong direction, and the component holding the message itself.
Three components were at the station already, two more were being shipped as cargo, and two were being hand carried by their agent. By Abbot. One, at least, in the Varian.
Abbot would surely carry the ones he could least expect to fabricate at the station in case of loss or damage.
As if following his thoughts, Abbot said, "Titus, I am going to win."
"We’ll see. If we play simple draw poker with no outside influences affecting the rules, I just might win."
"That’s the spirit!" exclaimed Mirelle. "Simple draw poker it is. No wild cards, no optional hands."
Abbot raised an eyebrow at Titus. "All right, we’ll make it a contest of pure poker skill—no other influences."
He’s either overconfident or I’ve underestimated him. In the past, Abbot’s apparent arrogance had always turned out to be extreme modesty. Titus wiped cold sweat off his palms. In a truly fair game, Titus knew he might even win. But—
The escort attendant poked her head in the door and called pleasantly, "Dr. Nandoha?"
He waved her away. "Never mind. I’ve become engaged." There was no way Abbot could take the Varian with him without using Influence to make the others overlook his odd behavior.
Mirelle located the package of miniature magnetic poker chips. "Who wants to be banker?"
"You do it, Mirelle," suggested Abner. "You’re the only woman here, and we all know what we’re playing for—don’t we, fellows?" He glanced from Abbot to Titus.
Mirelle shrugged. "I’ll divide the chips and if you run out, you’re out of the game. No bookkeeping. Whoever ends up with the most chips wins. We play until docking maneuvers and settle up in line at the boarding gate."
"We should be able to settle up here," objected Abbot.
Mirelle spun the table distributing the chips. "Abbot! You doubt your ability to remember calculator commands?"
Titus was disturbed by the way Abbot held her gaze. He knew all too well how Abbot used human women, and he despaired as Abbot’s lips trembled hungrily.
But the other was no more hungry than Titus at the outset of the mission. Abbot mastered himself easily. "I have not had cause to doubt my abilities in a great while."
They fell to playing in a concentrated silence, each of them focused on the discard pile, calculating odds, measuring each others’ expressions for any hint of worry. Abbot, no doubt, wasn’t worried. He had nearly total recall.
While Abner Gold pondered his second bet, Titus caught Andre Mihelich peeking at the game over his newsletter.
"Raise ten," announced Abner, sliding a stack of chips out, taking care that they adhered to one another and the bottom one stuck firmly to the table.
"Call," announced Mirelle prettily.
She was yet a different person now. She acted as if each development was the delight of a lifetime. But she didn’t chatter. Titus wished she’d just stop playing her anthropological game. Every once in a while, when something got through to her, she revealed flashes of her true self that intrigued him unbearably.
Titus put his cards down. "I’m out." He’d been holding a pair of threes and a pair of twos. He figured Mirelle had at least a flush, and Abbot a full house or above, for he hadn’t drawn any cards.
Abbot and Gold called. Mirelle won with a flush just one card higher than Abbot’s. Then they each won a round, Titus raking in the highest pot as he bluffed out the two humans when Abbot folded. But two rounds later, Mirelle was ahead and Titus caught Abbot glaring at him. Titus grinned back, knowing his father wouldn’t bring Influence to bear after promising not to.
Play became brisk and silent, a battle of nerve in which even Mirelle settled into stony concentration. Mihelich lowered his newsletter and stared. Responding to the tension between Titus and Abbot, the humans also played as if their lives depended on it. In a way, they did. The luren who’d respond to the Tourists’ SOS would regard humans as cattle and Earth’s civilization as an inconvenience to be wiped away. With all the space stations long ago rendered defenseless by W.S. treaty, it would be no contest.
Then Titus sensed a thrum of Influence gathering about Abbot. He might consider it fair to read the other players’ cards or the next cards to be drawn. Looking straight at his father, he roused his own Influence and cast a wave that interfered with the older vampire’s nearly tangible power. At will, Abbot could overpower anything Titus could do. Titus said, "I’m glad we’re playing straight, uncomplicated draw poker. It reveals the mettle of one’s opponents."
"Honor takes many forms," Abbot mused. "Sometimes real honor lies in the sacrifice of honor." Simultaneously, the Influence tension abated. Without even counting his chips, Abbot shoved them all to the center of the table.
Gold stared at the pile. He couldn’t match the bet. He folded and mopped his forehead with a handkerchief.
Mirelle matched the bet with one red chip to spare.
Titus’s hands shook as he counted chips. He was holding a royal flush, but there were eight hands that could beat his. He was pretty sure Abbot didn’t have one of those, or he wouldn’t have been worried enough to use Influence. But Mirelle might have that hand. Not might, does!
Titus matched the bet, with one white chip left over. Titus stared at her red chip. She’s won.
"Throw it in, Titus," urged Mirelle. "Raise."
It was a symbolic gesture, nothing more. Mirelle had won, but would be under Abbot’s Influence in a flash as soon as the game was over. With a shrug, Titus pushed the remaining white chip out. "Raise one."
Abbot placed his cards face down in their holder. "I’m out." His eyes never flickered, but his Influence gathered. He’d dictate to Mirelle how to distribute the calculators.
Mirelle fingered her red chip and explored Titus’s eyes. Then she gazed at Abbot. "I did say the one with the most chips at the end of the game would win, and that’s me. But I’d rather match hands with Titus. Winning seems to mean a lot to him. Perhaps if he wins, we’ll find out why."
Titus felt Abbot start, a frisson of alarm that shivered through the thick fabric of Influenced space between them. Abbot had always dominated humans. He had never bothered to understand them. Titus smiled. She had chosen him over Abbot, and he marveled at how warm that made him feel.
She snapped her cards down on the table. "Hearts. King. Queen. Jack. Ten. Nine."
Titus, realizing she was in this only for fun, extended the tension much as he would prolong foreplay because a woman liked it. As if about to announce his win, he snapped his cards down. "Spades. Eight. Nine. Ten. Jack. Queen."
She burst out laughing. Twisting in her seat, she could just barely reach Titus’s shoulders to embrace him. "Titus, you are wonderful! But even so, I’m glad I won."
Then she reached for the net. "I’ll take Abner’s TI-Alter, and give my custom job to…" Titus felt the Influence build. He tried to block Abbot. She paused and looked as if she’d forgotten what she’d intended to say then started over, "Since it seems to matter to Titus and Abbot more than I’d ever expected, I’m going to award Abbot’s Varian to Titus. And my custom to Abbot. Which leaves Titus’s Bell to Abner." With a little frown, she said, "Doesn’t that make perfect sense?"
"Are you sure that’s the way you want it, Mirelle?" asked Abbot.
In a hard voice, Titus answered, "She’s sure. The game isn’t over until we settle up!"
She cocked her head to one side, and Titus felt her strive against the Influence aimed at her. If a resistive human had fought Influence half so valiantly, the luren would have little chance in public. But Mirelle was susceptible. She said doubtfully, "I think I’m sure. The object of the game is to make it interesting. And since Abbot seems to want to keep his Varian out of Titus’s hands, the best way to make the game interesting is to put it into Titus’s hands."
Even though Abbot could have made her change her mind, these people would be confined with them for a year. It was essential not to arouse their suspicions. As he hesitated, the warning chime sounded and Titus collected the Varian, passing the others out as Mirelle had specified while they hurried to stow the cards and chips before docking maneuvers.
No sooner had the ship stopped pulsing and surging than the attendants appeared to escort them through the linked hatches and into Goddard Station—the first stepping stone into space, orbiting high above Earth’s surface.
The station rotated, providing gravity. The lights were bright, but not too strong for Titus’s dark contacts. The air had the blank feel of dustless, processed air marbled with streaks of human odor. Under the hum of machinery, there was the sharp sound of human voices confined in a metal shell.
Abbot had contrived to stay behind Titus all the way from the skybus to an area where the scientists had to pass a brief instrument check to determine their response to the low gravity. Titus walked with one hand in his pocket on Abbot’s Varian. Seeing his chance, he squirmed through the press, muttering apologies, and headed for the hatch marked MEN. Glancing behind, he saw Abbot detained by a knot of laughing Turkish engineers teasing a Greek mathematician.
Titus dodged around three women huddled over a glossy fax of a bubble chamber tracing, arguing heatedly. He caught half a sentence and chipped in, "No, if it were, it would go clockwise. Ask that tall, skinny gentleman over there." He pointed at Abbot.
As the women followed his gesture, he ducked through a crack in the wall of people and backed into the men’s room. Two men pushed out past him discussing better designs for low-grav urinals. Titus locked himself in a stall and attacked the Varian’s case, using his thumbnail as a screwdriver. He heard the door open, and thought he was lost. The screw wouldn’t budge. Then, with the steps coming toward him, it turned. Someone went into the adjacent stall, and Titus knew it wasn’t Abbot—should have known all along.
Calm down, he admonished himself. At last the case opened. He sorted through modified boards and connectors. He tricked me! He wanted me to believe there was a transmitter component in here!
Abbot was capable of such subtlety, and Titus was ashamed for not having considered that before. But then a small bit of circuitry fell out into his hand. It was as long as his palm, and no more than five millimeters thick, but he could see the circuitry etching inside, and the microprocessor. It was an advanced design, glittering like a diffraction jewel, and it wasn’t attached to the Varian.
The hatch opened again, and the room was flooded with Influence, silent, overwhelming.
Titus’s breath caught in his throat. He clamped his teeth onto his lower lip as he fought to turn his palm over and spill the component to the floor where he could crush it with his heel. His hand trembled, but refused to turn.
He summoned his own power to combat Abbot’s Influence. From the adjacent stall came the sound of human retching. Cloaking his words, so the human wouldn’t notice, Abbot whispered, "Put it back, boy, and I’ll let the human rest."
"If he knew what he was suffering for, he’d surely volunteer," returned Titus and made another supreme effort to drop the jewel-like chip and crush it.
Against the pall of Abbot’s Influence, he could not force his hand to turn. With a silent snarl, he focused his power, feeling weak and helpless against the elder’s might. He was a twig, and the older vampire an immense oak. He redoubled his effort, but his hand only shook violently.
His fingers, white with strain, uncurled a bit. Not from any conscious direction of Titus’s but simply from the strain, his arm spasmed, jerking his hand. The chip slid off his palm and fell lazily in the weak gravity, Coriolis force curving its trajectory. It glanced off the toilet rim and clanked into the polished steel bowl, which contained no water. The lucite chip clattered to rest on the mirror-bright surface, easy to retrieve if not for the searing ultraviolet rays triggered when the solid entered the field.
At the tink of plastic hitting metal, Abbot swarmed up the wall, his concentration wavering when he had to pay attention to how he moved in the light gravity. With a cry of triumph, Titus fell against the flushing bar. Abbot’s Influence clamped down again, but the toilet mechanism sucked the component away into the main sewage tank.
Titus looked up at Abbot, who was spread across the top of the stall gazing into the toilet. The power that had enveloped Titus in an iron grip dwindled. The shock frozen onto Abbot’s ageless face told Titus he had struck a major blow.
[an error occurred while processing this directive]
Search amazon.com for Jean Lorrah or Jacqueline Lichtenberg.
Find out why we so vigorously support amazon.com
Feedback about this page.
Feedback about Sime~Gen Inc.
Feedback about technical problems with this site.
Concerned about your privacy? Simegen Inc. respects your rights, and the protection of children. Please read our Privacy Statement.
copyright © 2002 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg. All rights reserved.
Those of My Blood copyright © 1988 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg
Dreamspy copyright © 1989 by Jacqueline Lichtenberg