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Because Tia was in no danger of dying—and because there was no craft available to come fetch her capable of Singu-larity Drive—the AI-drone that had been sent to take her to a Central Worlds hospital took two more weeks to arrive. Two more long, interminable weeks, during which the faces of her Mum and Dad grew drawn and frightened—and in which her condition not only did not improve, it deteriorated.

By the end of that two weeks, she was in much worse shape; she had not only lost all feeling in her limbs, she had lost use of them as well. The clumsiness that had begun when she had trouble with buttons and zippers had turned into paralysis. If she hadn't felt the need to keep her parents' spirits up, she'd have cried. She couldn't even hold Ted anymore.

She joked about it to her Mum, pretending that she had always wanted to be waited on hand and foot. She had to joke about it; although she was terrified, the look of fear in her parents' eyes drove her own terrors away. She was determined, absolutely determined, not to let them know how frightened she was. They were already scared enough—if she lost her courage, they might panic.

The time crawled by, as she watched holo after holo and played endless games of chess against Braddon, and kept telling herself that once she got to the hospital everything would be fine. Of course it would be fine. There wasn't anything that a Central Worlds hospital couldn't cure. Everyone knew that! Only congenital defects couldn't be cured. But she had been fine, right up until the day this started. It was probably something stupid.

"Socrates says it has to be pinched nerves," Pota repeated, for the hundredth time, the day the ship was due. "Once they get you to the hospital, you'll have to be really brave, pumpkin. They're probably going to have to operate on you, and it's probably going to take several months before you're back to normal—"

She brushed Tia's hair and tied it in back in a neat tail, the way Tia liked it. "I won't be able to do any lessons, then, will I?" she asked, mostly to keep her mother's mind busy with something trivial. Mum doesn't handle reality and real-time very well . . . Dad doesn't either. "They're probably going to have me in a cast or something, and all dopey with pain-pills. I'm going to fall behind, aren't I?"

"Well," Pota said, with false cheer, "yes, I'm afraid so. But that will probably make the Psychs all very happy, you know, they think that you're too far ahead as it is. But just think—you'll have the whole library at the hospital to dig into any time you want it!"

That was enough even to divert her for a minute. The entire library at the hospital—magnitudes bigger than any library they could carry with them. All the holos she wanted to watch—and proper reading screens set up, instead of the jury-rig Dad had put together—

"They're here—" Braddon called from the outer room. Pota compressed her lips into a line again and lifted Tia out of the bed. And for the first time in weeks, Tia was bundled into her pressure-suit, put inside as if Pota was dressing a giant doll. Braddon came in to help in a moment, as she tried to cooperate as much as she could. She would be going outside again. This time, though, she probably wouldn't be coming back. Not to this dome, anyway.

"Wait!" she called, just before Pota sealed her in. "Wait, I want my bear!" And at the look of doubt her parents exchanged, she put on the most pleading expression she could manage. "Please?" She couldn't stand the idea that she'd be going off to a strange place with nothing familiar or warm in it. Even if she couldn't hold him, she could still talk to him and feel his fur against her cheek. "Please?"

"All right, pumpkin," Pota said, relenting. "I think there's just room for him in there with you." Fortunately Ted was very squashable, and Tia herself was slender. There was room for him in the body of the suit, and Tia took comfort in the feel of his warm little bulk against her waist.

She didn't have any time to think of anything else—for at that moment, two strangers dressed in the white pressure-suits of CenCom Medical came in. There was a strange hiss at the back of her air-pack, and the room went away.

* * *

She woke again in a strange white room, dressed in a white paper gown. The only spot of color in the whole place was Ted. He was propped beside her, in the crook of her arm, his head peeking out from beneath the white blanket

She blinked, trying to orient herself, and the cold hand of fear clamped down on her throat. Where was she? A hospital room, probably, but where were Mum and Dad? How did she get here so fast? What had those two strangers done to her?

And why wasn't she feeling better? Why couldn't she feel anything?

"She's awake," said a voice she didn't recognize. She turned her head, which was all she could move, to see someone in another white pressure-suit standing beside her, anonymous behind a dark faceplate. The red cross of Medical was on one shoulder, and there was a name-tag over the breast, but she couldn't read it from this angle. She couldn't even tell if the person in the suit was male or female, or even human or humanoid.

The faceplate bent over her; she would have shrunk away if she could, feeling scared in spite of herself—the plate was so blank, so impersonal. But then she realized that the person in the suit had bent down so that she could see the face inside, past the glare of lights on the plexi surface, and she relaxed a little.

"Hello, Hypatia," said the person—a lady, actually, a very nice lady from her face. Her voice sounded kind of tinny, coming through the suit speaker; a little like Moira's over the ancient com. The comparison made her feel a little calmer. At least the lady knew her name and pronounced it right.

"Hello," she said cautiously. "This is the hospital, isn't it? How come I don't remember the ship?"

"Well, Hypatia—may I call you Tia?" At Tia's nod, the lady continued. "Tia, our first thought was that you might have some kind of plague, even though your parents were all right. The doctor and medic we sent on the ship decided that it was better to be completely safe and keep you and your parents in isolation. The easiest way to do that was to put all three of you in cold sleep and keep you in your suits until we got you here. We didn't want to frighten you, so we asked your parents not to tell you what we were going to do."

Tia digested that. "All right," she said, trying to be agreeable, since there wasn't anything she could have done about it anyway. "It probably would have gotten really boring on the ship. There probably wasn't much to watch or read, and they would have gotten tired of playing chess with me."

The lady laughed. "Given that you would have beaten the pants off both of them, quite probably," she agreed, straightening up a little. Now that Tia knew there was a person behind the faceplate, it didn't seem quite so threatening. "Now, we're going to keep you in isolation for a while longer, while we see what it is that bit you. You'll be seeing a lot of me—I'm one of your two doctors. My name is Anna Jorgenson-Kepal, and you can call me Anna, or Doctor Anna if you like, but I don't think we need to be that formal. Your other doctor is Kennet Uhua-Sorg. You won't be seeing much of him until you're out of isolation, because he's a paraplegic and he's in a Moto-Chair. Can't fit one of them into a pressure-suit."

The holo-screen above the bed flickered into life, and the head and shoulders of a thin, ascetic-looking young man appeared there. "Call me Kenny, Tia," the young man said. "I absolutely refuse to be stuffy with you. I'm sorry I can't meet you in person, but it takes forever to decontam one of these fardling chairs, so Anna gets to be my hands."

"That's—your chair—it's kind of like a modified shell, isn't it?" she asked curiously, deciding that if they were going to bring the subject up, she wasn't going to be polite and avoid it. "I know a shellperson. Moira, she's a brainship."

"Dead on!" Kenny said cheerfully. "Medico on the half-shell, that's me! I just had a stupid accident when I was a tweenie, not like you, getting bit by alien bugs!"

She smiled tentatively. I think I'm going to like him. "Did anyone ever tell you that you look just like Amenemhat the Third?"

His large eyes widened even more. "Well, no—that is definitely a new one. I hope it's a compliment! One of my patients said I looked like Largo Delecron, the synthcom star, but I didn't know she thought Largo looked like a refugee from a slaver camp!"

"It is," she assured him hastily. "He's one of my favorite Pharaohs."

"I'll have to see if I can't cultivate the proper Pharaonic majesty, then," Kenny replied with a grin. "It might do me some good when I have to drum some sense into the heads of some of the Psychs around here! They've been trying to get at you ever since we admitted you."

If she could have shivered with apprehension, she would have. "I don't have to see them, do I?" she asked in a small voice. "They never stop asking stupid questions!"

"Absolutely not," Anna said firmly. "I have a double-doctorate; one of them is in headshrinking. I am quite capable of assessing you all by myself."

Tia's heart sank when Anna mentioned her degree in Psych—but it rose the moment she referred to Psych as "headshrinking." None of the Psychs who had plagued her life until now ever called their profession by something as frivolous as "headshrinking."

She patted Tia's shoulder. "Don't worry, Tia. It's my opinion that you are a very brave young lady—a little too responsible, but otherwise just fine. They spend too much time analyzing children and not enough time actually seeing them or paying attention to them." She smiled inside her helmet, and a curl of hair escaped down to dangle above her left eyebrow, making her look a lot more human.

"Listen, Tia, there's a little bit of fur missing from your bear, and a scrap of stuffing," Kenny said. "Anna says you wouldn't notice, but I thought we ought to tell you anyway. We checked him over for alien bugs and neurotoxins, and he's got a clean bill of health. When you come out of Coventry, we'll decontam him again to be sure, but we know he wasn't the problem, in case you were wondering."

She had wondered. . . . Moira wouldn't have done anything on purpose, of course, but it would have been horrible if her sickness had been due to Ted. Moira would have felt awful, not to mention how Tomas would feel.

"What's his name?" Anna asked, busying herself with something at the head of the bed. Tia couldn't turn her head far enough to see what it was.

"Theodore Edward Bear," she replied, surreptitiously rubbing her cheek against his soft fur. "Moira gave him to me, because she used to have a bear named Ivan the Bearable."

"Excellent name, Theodore. It suits him," Anna said. "You know, I think your Moira and I must be about the same age—there was a kind of fad for bears when I was little. I had a really nice bear in a flying suit called Amelia Bearhart." She chuckled. "I still have her, actually, but she mostly sits on the bureau in my guest room. She's gotten to be a very venerable matriarch in her old age."

But bears weren't really what she wanted to talk about. Now that she knew where she was, and that she was in isolation. "How long am I going to be in here?" she asked in a small voice.

Kenny turned very serious, and Anna stopped fiddling with things. Kenny sucked on his lower lip for a moment before actually replying, and the hum of the machinery in her room seemed very loud. "The Psychs were trying to tell us that we should try and cushion you, but—Tia, we think that you are a very unusual girl. We think you would rather know the complete truth. Is that the case?"

Would she? Or would she rather pretend—

But this wasn't like making up stories at a dig. If she pretended, things would only seem worse when they finally told her the truth, if it was bad.

"Ye-es," she told them both, slowly. "Please."

"We don't know," Anna told her. "I wish we did. We haven't found anything in your blood, and we're only just now trying to isolate things in your nervous system. But—well, we're assuming it's a bug that got you, a proto-virus, maybe, but we don't know, and that's the truth. Until we know, we won't know if we can fix you again."

Not when. If.

The possibility that she might stay like this for the rest of her life chilled her.

"Your parents are in isolation, too," Kenny said, hastily, "but they are one hundred percent fine. There's nothing wrong with them at all. So that makes things harder."

"I understand, I think," she said in a small, nervous-sounding voice. She took a deep breath. "Am I getting worse?"

Anna went very still. Kenny's face darkened, and he bit his lower lip.

"Well," he said quietly. "Yes. We're having to think about mobility, and maybe even life-support for you. Something considerably more than my chair. I wish I could tell you differently, Tia."

"That's all right," she said, trying to ease his distress. "I'd rather know."

Anna leaned down to whisper something through her suit-mike. "Tia, if you're afraid of crying, don't be. If I were in your position, I'd cry. And if you would like to be alone, tell us, all right?"

"Okay," she replied, faintly. "Uh, can I be alone for a while, please?"

"Sure." She stopped pretending to fuss with equipment and nodded shortly at the holo-screen. Kenny brought up one hand to wave at her, and the screen blinked out. Anna left through what Tia now realized was a decontam-airlock a moment later. Leaving her alone with the hissing, humming equipment, and Ted.

She swallowed a lump in her throat and thought very hard about what they'd told her.

She wasn't getting any better, she was getting worse. They didn't know what was wrong. That was on the negative side. On the plus side, there was nothing wrong with Mum and Dad, and they hadn't said to give up all hope.

Therefore, she should continue to assume that they would find a cure.

She cleared her throat. "Hello?" she said.

As she had thought, there was an AI monitoring the room.

"Hello," it replied, in the curiously accentless voice only an AI could produce. "What is your need?"

"I'd like to watch a holo. History," she said, after a moment of thought. "There's a holo about Queen Hatshepsut of Egypt. It's called Phoenix of Ra, I think. Have you got that?"

That had been on the forbidden list at home; Tia knew why. There had been some pretty steamy scenes with the Pharaoh and her architect in there. Tia was fascinated by the only female to declare herself Pharaoh, however, and had been decidedly annoyed when a little sex kept her from viewing this one.

"Yes, I have access to that," the AI said after a moment. "Would you like to view it now?"

So they hadn't put any restrictions on her viewing privileges! "Yes," she replied; then, eager to strike while she had the chance, "And after that, I'd like to see the Aten trilogy, about Ahnkenaten and the heretics—that's Aten Rising, Aten at Zenith, and Aten Descending."

Those had more than a few steamy scenes; she'd overheard her mother saying that some of the theories that had been dramatized fairly explicitly in the trilogy, while they made comprehensible some otherwise inexplicable findings, would get the holos banned in some cultures. And Braddon had chuckled and replied that the costumes alone—or lack of them—while completely accurate, would do the same. Still—Tia figured she could handle it. And if it was that bad, it would certainly help keep her mind off her own troubles!

"Very well," the AI said agreeably. "Shall I begin?"

"Yes," she told it, with another caress of her cheek on Ted's soft fur. "Please."

* * *

Pota and Braddon watched their daughter with frozen faces, faces that Tia was convinced covered a complete welter of emotions that they didn't want her to see. She took a deep breath, enunciated "Chair forward, five feet," and her Moto-Chair glided forward and stopped before it touched them.

"Well, now I can get around at least," she said, with what she hoped sounded like cheer. "I was getting awfully tired of the same four walls!"

Whatever it was that she had—and now she heard the words "proto-virus" and "dystrophic sclerosis" bandied about more often than not—the medics had decided it wasn't contagious. They'd let Pota and Braddon out of isolation, and they'd moved Tia to another room, one that had a door right onto the corridor. Not that it made much difference, except that Anna didn't have to use a decontam airlock and pressure-suit anymore. And now Kenny came to see her in person. But four white walls were still four white walls, and there wasn't much variation in rooms.

Still—she was afraid to ask for things to personalize the room. Afraid that if she made it more her own—she'd be stuck in it. Forever.

Her numbness and paralysis extended to most of her body now, except for her facial muscles. And there it stopped. Just as inexplicably as it had begun.

They'd put her in the quadriplegic version of the Moto-Chair; just like Kenny's except that she controlled hers with a few commands and series of tongue-switches and eye movements. A command sent it forward, and the direction she looked would tell it where to go. And hers had mechanical "arms" that followed set patterns programmed in to respond to more commands. Any command had to be prefaced by "chair" or "arm." A clumsy system, but it was the best they could do without direct synaptic connections from the brainstem, like those of a shellperson.

Her brainstem was still intact, anyway. Whatever it was had gotten her spine, but not that.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, she thought with bitter irony, how was the play? 

"What do you think, pumpkin?" Braddon asked, his voice quivering only a little.

"Hey, this is stellar, Dad," she replied cheerfully. "It's just like piloting a ship! I think I'll challenge Doctor Kenny to a race!"

Pota swallowed very hard and managed a tremulous smile. "It won't be for too long," she said without conviction. "As soon as they find out what's set up housekeeping in there, they'll have you better in no time."

She bit her lip to keep from snapping back and dug up a fatuous grin from somewhere. The likelihood of finding a cure diminished more with every day, and she knew it. Neither Anna nor Kenny made any attempt to hide that from her.

But there was no point in making her parents unhappy. They already felt bad enough.

She tried out all the points of the chair for them, until not even they could stand it anymore. They left, making excuses and promising to come back—and they were succeeded immediately by a stream of interns and neurological specialists, each of whom had more variations on the same basic questions she had answered a thousand times, each of whom had his own pet theory about what was wrong.

"First my toes felt like they were asleep when I woke up one morning, but it wore off. Then it didn't wear off. Then instead of waking up with tingles, I woke up numb. No, sir, it never actually hurt. No, ma'am, it only went as far as my heel at first. Yes, sir, then after two days my fingers started. No ma'am, just the fingers not the whole hand. . . ."

Hours of it. But she knew that they weren't being nasty, they were trying to help her, and being able to help her depended on how cooperative she was.

But their questions didn't stop the questions of her own. So far it was just sensory nerves and voluntary muscles and nerves. What if it went to the involuntary ones, and she woke up unable to breathe? What then? What if she lost control of her facial muscles? Every little tingle made her break out in a sweat of panic, thinking it was going to happen. . . .

Nobody had answers for any questions. Not hers, and not theirs.

Finally, just before dinner, they went away. After about a half an hour, she mastered control of the arms enough to feed herself, saving herself the humiliation of having to call a nurse to do it. And the chair's own plumbing solved the humiliation of the natural result of eating and drinking. . . .

After supper, when the tray was taken away, she was left in the growing darkness of the room, quite alone. She would have slumped, if she could have. It was just as well that Pota and Braddon hadn't returned; having them there was a strain. It was harder to be brave in front of them than it was in front of strangers.

"Chair, turn seventy degrees right," she ordered. "Left arm, pick up bear."

With a soft whir, the chair obeyed her.

"Left arm, put bear—cancel. Left arm, bring bear to left of face." The arm moved a little. "Closer. Closer. Hold."

Now she cuddled Ted against her cheek, and she could pretend that it was her own arm holding him there.

With no one there to see, slow, hot tears formed in her eyes and trickled down her cheeks. She leaned her head to the left a little, so that they would soak into Ted's soft blue fur and not betray her.

"It's not fair," she whispered to Ted, who seemed to nod with sad agreement as she rubbed her cheek against him. "It's not fair. . . ."

I wanted to find the EsKay homeworld. I wanted to go out with Mum and Dad and be the one to find the homeworld. I wanted to write books. I wanted to stand up in front of people and make them laugh and get excited, and see how history and archeology aren't dead, they're just asleep. I wanted to do things they make holos out of. I wanted—I wanted—  

I wanted to see things! I wanted to drive grav-sleds and swim in a real lagoon and feel a storm and—  

—and I wanted—  

Some of the scenes from the holos she'd been watching came back with force now, and memories of Pota and Braddon, when they thought she was engrossed in a book or a holo, giggling and cuddling like tweenies. . . .

I wanted to find out about boys. Boys and kisses and—  

And now nobody's ever going to look at me and see me. All they're going to see is this big metal thing. That's all they see now. . . .  

Even if a boy ever wanted to kiss me, he'd have to get past a half ton of machinery, and it would probably bleep an alarm.  

The tears poured faster now, with the darkness of the room to hide them.

They wouldn't have put me in this thing if they thought I was going to get better. I'm never going to get better. I'm only going to get worse. I can't feel anything, I'm nothing but a head in a machine. And if I get worse, will I go deaf? Blind?  

"Teddy, what's going to happen to me?" she sobbed. "Am I going to spend the rest of my life in a room?"

Ted didn't know, any more than she did.

"It's not fair, it's not fair, I never did anything," she wept, as Ted watched her tears with round, sad eyes, and soaked them up for her. "It's not fair. I wasn't finished. I hadn't even started yet. . . ."

* * *

Kenny grabbed a tissue with one hand and snapped off the camera-relay with the other. He scrubbed fiercely at his eyes and blew his nose with a combination of anger and grief. Anger, at his own impotence. Grief, for the vulnerable little girl alone in that cold, impersonal hospital room, a little girl who was doing her damnedest to put a brave face on everything.

In public. He was the only one to watch her in private, like this, when she thought there was no one to see that her whole pose of cheer was nothing more than a facade.

"I wasn't finished. I wasn't even started yet."

"Damn it," he swore, scrubbing at his eyes again and pounding the arm of his chair. "Damn it anyway!" What careless god had caused her to choose the very words he had used, fifteen years ago?

Fifteen years ago, when a stupid accident had left him paralyzed from the waist down and put an end—he thought—to his dreams for med school?

Fifteen years ago, when Doctor Harwat Kline-Bes was his doctor and had heard him weeping alone into his pillow?

He turned his chair and opened the viewport out into the stars, staring at them as they moved past in a panorama of perfect beauty that changed with the rotation of the station. He let the tears dry on his cheeks, let his mind empty.

Fifteen years ago, another neurologist had heard those stammered, heartbroken words, and had determined that they would not become a truth. He had taken a paraplegic young student, bullied the makers of an experimental Moto-Chair into giving the youngster one—then bullied the dean of the Meyasor State Medical College into admitting the boy. Then he had seen to it that once the boy graduated, he got an internship in this very hospital—a place where a neurologist in a Moto-Chair was no great curiosity, not with the sentients of a hundred worlds coming in as patients and doctors. . . .

A paraplegic, though. Not a quad. Not a child with a brilliant, flexible mind, trapped in an inert body.

Brilliant mind. Inert body. Brilliant—  

An idea blinded him, it occurred so suddenly. He was not the only person watching Tia—there was one other. Someone who watched every patient here, every doctor, every nurse. . . . Someone he didn't consult too often, because Lars wasn't a medico, or a shrink—

But in this case, Lars' opinion was likely to be more accurate than anyone else's on this station. Including his own.

He thumbed a control. "Lars," he said shortly. "Got a minute, buddy?"

He had to wait for a moment. Lars was a busy guy—though hopefully at this hour there weren't too many demands on his conversational circuits. "Certainly, Kenny," Lars replied after a few seconds. "How can I help the neurological wunderkind of Central Worlds MedStation Pride of Albion? Hmm?" The voice was rich and ironic; Lars rather enjoyed teasing everyone onboard. He called it "therapeutic deflation of egos." He particularly liked deflating Kenny's—he had said more than once that everyone else was so afraid of being "unkind to the poor cripple" that they danced on eggs to avoid telling him when he was full of it.

"Can the sarcasm, Lars," Kenny replied. "I've got a serious problem that I want your opinion on."

"My opinion?" Lars sounded genuinely surprised. "This must be a personal opinion—I'm certainly not qualified to give you a medical one."

"Most definitely, a very personal opinion, one that you are the best suited to give. On Hypatia Cade."

"Ah." Kenny thought that Lars' tone softened considerably. "The little child in the Neuro unit, with the unchildlike taste in holos. She still thinks I'm the AI. I haven't dissuaded her."

"Good, I want her to be herself around you, for the gods of space know she won't be herself around the rest of us." He realized that his tone had gone savage and carefully regained control over himself before he continued. "You've got her records and you've watched the kid herself. I know she's old for it—but how would she do in the shell program?"

A long pause. Longer than Lars needed simply to access and analyze records. "Has her condition stabilized?" he asked, cautiously. "If it hasn't—if she goes brain-inert halfway into her schooling—it'd not only make problems for anyone else you'd want to bring in late, it'll traumatize the other shell-kids badly. They don't handle death well. I wouldn't be a party to frightening them, however inadvertently."

Kenny massaged his temple with the long, clever fingers that had worked so many surgical miracles for others and could do nothing for this little girl. "As far as we can tell anything about this—disease—yes, she's stable," he said finally. "Take a look in there and you'll see I ordered a shotgun approach while we were testing her. She's had a full course of every anti-viral neurological agent we've got a record of. And non-invasive things like a course of ultra—well, you can see it there. I think we killed it, whatever it was."

Too late to help her. Damn it.  

"She's brilliant," Lars said cautiously. "She's flexible. She has the ability to multi-thread, to do several things at once. And she's had good, positive reactions to contact with shellpersons in the past."

"So?" Kenny asked, impatiently, as the stars passed by in their courses, indifferent to the fate of one little girl. "Your opinion."

"I think she can make the transition," Lars said, with more emphasis than Kenny had ever heard in his voice before. "I think she'll not only make the transition, she'll do well."

He let out the breath he'd been holding in a sigh.

"Physically, she is certainly no worse off than many in the shellperson program, including yours truly," Lars continued. "Frankly, Kenny, she's got so much potential it would be a crime to let her rot in a hospital room for the rest of her life."

The careful control Lars normally had over his voice was gone; there was passion in his words that Kenny had never heard him display until this moment. "Got to you, too, did she?" he said dryly.

"Yes," Lars said, biting off the word. "And I'm not ashamed of it. I don't mind telling you that she had me in—well, not tears, but certainly the equivalent."

"Good for you." He rubbed his hands together, warming cold fingers. "Because I'm going to need your connivance again."

"Going to pull another fast one, are you?" Lars asked with ironic amusement.

"Just a few strings. What good does being a stellar intellect do me, if I can't make use of the position?" he asked rhetorically. He shut the viewport and pivoted his chair to face his desk, keying on his terminal and linking it directly to Lars and a very personal database. One called "Favors." "All right, my friend, let's get to work. First, whose strings can you jerk? Then, who on the political side has influence in the program, of that set, who owes me the most, and of that subset, who's due here the soonest?"

* * *

A Sector Secretary-General did not grovel, nor did he gush, but to Kenny's immense satisfaction, when Quintan Waldheim-Querar y Chan came aboard the Pride of Albion, the very first thing he wanted, after all the official inspections and the like were over, was to meet with the brilliant neurologist whose work had saved his nephew from the same fate as Kenny himself. He already knew most of what there was to know about Kenny and his meteoric career.

And Quintan Waldheim-Querar y Chan was not the sort to avoid an uncomfortable topic.

"A little ironic, isn't it?" the Secretary-General said, after the firm handshake, with a glance at Kenny's Moto-Chair. He stood up and did not tug self-consciously at his conservative dark blue tunic.

Kenny did not smile, but he took a deep breath of satisfaction. Doubly good. No more calls, we have a winner. 

"What, that my injury was virtually identical to Peregrine's?" he replied immediately. "Not ironic at all, sir. The fact that I found myself in this position was what prompted me to go into neurology in the first place. I won't try to claim that if I hadn't been injured, and hadn't worked so hard to find a remedy for the same injuries, someone else might not have come up with the same answer that I did. Medical research is a matter of building on what has come before, after all."

"But without your special interest, the solution might well have come too late to do Peregrine any good," the Secretary-General countered. "And it was not only your technique, it was your skill that pulled him through. There is no duplication of that—not in this sector, anyway. That's why I arranged for this visit. I wanted to thank you."

Kenny shrugged deprecatingly. This was the most perfect opening he'd ever seen in his life—and he had no intention of letting it get away from him. Not when he had the answer to Tia's prayers trapped in his office.

"I can't win them all, sir," he said flatly. "I'm not a god. Though there are times I wish most profoundly that I was, and right now is one of them."

The Great Man's expression sobered. The Secretary-General was not just a Great Man because he was an excellent administrator; he was one because he had a human side, and that human and humane side could be touched. "I take it you have a case that is troubling you?" Then, conscious of the fact that he Owed Kenny, he said the magic words. "Perhaps I can help?"

Kenny sighed, as if he were reluctant to continue the discussion. Wouldn't do to seem too eager. "Well—would you care to see some tape of the child?"

Child. Children were one of the Great Man's weaknesses. He had sponsored more child-oriented programs than any three of his predecessors combined. "Yes. If it would not be violating the child's privacy."

"Here—" Kenny flicked a switch, triggering the holo-record he already had keyed up. A record he and Anna had put together. Carefully edited, carefully selected, compiled from days of recordings with Lars' assistance and the psych-profile of the Great Man to guide them. "I promise I won't take more than fifteen minutes of your time."

The first seven and a half minutes of this recording were of Tia at her most attractive; being very brave and cheerful for the interns and her parents. "This is Hypatia Cade, the daughter of Pota Andropolous-Cade and Braddon Maartens-Cade," he explained, over the holo. Quickly he outlined her background and her pathetic little story, stressing her high intelligence, her flexibility, her responsibility. "The prognosis isn't very cheerful, I'm afraid," he said, watching his chrono carefully to time his speech with the end of that section of tape. "No matter what we do, she's doomed to spend the rest of her life in some institution or other. The only way she could be at all mobile would be through direct synaptic connections—well, we don't do that here—they can only link in that way at Lab Schools, the shellperson project—"

He stopped, as the holo flickered and darkened. Tia was alone.

The arm of her chair reached out and grasped the sad little blue bear, hidden until now by the tray table and a pillow. It brought the toy in close to her face, and she gently rubbed her cheek against its soft fur coat. The lightning-bolt of the Courier Service on its shirt stood out clearly in this shot . . . one reason why Kenny had chosen it.

"They've gone, Ted," she whispered to her bear. "Mum and Dad—they've gone back to the Institute. There's nobody left here but you, now."

A single bright tear formed in one corner of her eye and slowly rolled down her cheek, catching what little light there was in the room.

"What? Oh, no, it's not their fault, Ted—they had to. The Institute said so, I saw the dispatch. It said—it said since I w-w-wasn't going to get any b-b-b-better there was no p-p-p-point in—in—wasting v-v-valuable t-t-time—"

She sobbed once, and buried her face in the teddy bear's fur.

After a moment, her voice came again, muffled. "Anyway, it hurts them so m-much. And it's s-s-so hard to be b-brave for them. But if I cried, th-they'd only feel w-worse. I think m-maybe it's b-better this way, don't you? Easier. F-for every-b-b-b-body. . . ."

The holo flickered again; same time, nearly the same position, but a different day. This time she was crying openly, tears coursing down her cheeks as she sobbed into the bear's little shirt. "We've given her the complete run of the library and the holo collection," Kenny said, very softly. "Normally, they keep her relatively amused and stimulated—but just before we filmed this, she picked out an episode of The Stellar Explorers—and—well—her parents said she had planned to be a pilot, you see—"

She continued to cry, sobbing helplessly, the only understandable words being "—Teddy—I wanted—to go—I wanted to see the stars—" 

The holo flickered out, as Kenny turned the lights in his office back up. He reached for a tissue and wiped his eyes without shame. "I'm afraid she affects me rather profoundly," he said, and smiled weakly. "So much for my professional detachment."

The Great Man blinked rapidly to clear his own eyes. "Why isn't something being done for that child?" he demanded, his voice hoarse.

"We've done all we can—here," Kenny said. "The only possibility of giving that poor child any kind of a life is to get her into the shellperson program. But the Psychs at the Laboratory Schools seem to think she's too old. They wouldn't even send someone to come evaluate her, even though the parents petitioned them and we added our own recommendations. . . ."

He let the sentence trail off significantly. The Secretary-General gave him a sharp look. "And you don't agree with them, I take it?"

Kenny shrugged. "It isn't just my opinion," he said smoothly. "It's the opinion of the staff Psych assigned to her, the shellperson running this station, and a brainship friend of hers in the Courier Service. The one," he added delicately, "who gave her that little bear."

Mentioning the bear sold the deal; Kenny could see it in the Great Man's expression. "We'll just see about that," the Secretary-General said. "The people you talked to don't have all the answers—and they certainly don't have the final say." He stood up and offered Kenny his hand again. "I won't promise anything—but don't be surprised if there's someone from the Laboratory Schools here to see her in the next few days. How soon can you have her ready for transfer, if they take her?"

"Within twelve hours, sir," Kenny replied, secretly congratulating himself for getting her parents to sign a writ-of-consent before they left. Of course, they thought it was for experimental procedures.

Then again, Pota and Braddon had been the ones who'd broached the idea of the shellperson program to the people at the Laboratory Schools and been turned down because of Tia's age.

"Twelve hours?" The Great Man raised an eyebrow. Kenny returned him look for look.

"Her parents are under contract to the Archeological Institute," he explained. "The Institute called them back out into the field, because their parental emergency leave was up. They weren't happy, but it was obey or be fired. Hard to find another job in that field that isn't with the Institute." He coughed. "Well, they trusted my work, and made me Tia's full guardian before they left."

"So you have right-of-disposition and guardianship. Very tidy." The Secretary-General's wry smile showed that he knew he had been maneuvered into this—and that he was not annoyed. "All right. There'll be someone from the schools here within the week. Unless there's something you haven't told me about the girl, he should finish his evaluation in two days. At the end of those two days . . ." One eyebrow raised significantly. "Well, it would be very convenient if he could take the new recruit back with him, wouldn't it?"

"Yes, sir," Kenny said happily. "It would indeed, sir."

* * *

If it hadn't been for Doctor Uhua-Sorg's reputation and the pleas of his former pupil, Lars Mendoza, Philip Gryphon bint Brogen would have been only too happy to tell the committee where to stick the Secretary-General's request. And what to do with it after they put it there. One did not pull strings to get an unsuitable candidate into the shell program! Maybe the Secretary-General thought he could get away with that kind of politicking with Academy admissions, but he was going to find out differently here. 

Philip was not inclined to be coaxed and would not give in to bullying. So it was in a decidedly belligerent state of mind that he disembarked from his shuttle onto the docks of the Pride of Albion. Like every hospital station, this one affronted him with its sterile white walls and atmosphere of self-importance.

There was someone waiting—obviously for him—in the reception area. Someone in a Moto-Chair. A handsome young man with thick dark hair and a thin, ascetic face.

If they think they can soften me up by assigning me to someone they think I won't dare be rude to—he thought savagely, as the young man glided the Chair toward him. Conniving beggars— 

"Professor Brogen?" said the ridiculously young, vulnerable-looking man, holding out his hand. "I'm Doctor Sorg."

"If you think I'm going to—" Brogen began, not reaching out to take it—then the name registered on him and he did a classic double-take. "Doctor Sorg? Doctor Uhua-Sorg?"

The young man nodded, just the barest trace of a smile showing on his lips.

"Doctor Kennet Uhua-Sorg?" Brogen asked, feeling as if he'd been set up, yet knowing he had set up himself for this particular fall.

"Yes indeed," the young man replied. "I take it that you weren't—ah—expecting me to meet you in person."

A chance for an out—not a graceful one, but an out—and Brogen took it. "Hardly," he replied brusquely. "The Chief of Neurosurgery and Neurological Research usually does not meet a simple professor on behalf of an ordinary child."

"Tia is far from ordinary, Professor," Doctor Sorg responded, never once losing that hint of smile. "Any more than you are a 'simple' professor. But, if you'll follow me, you'll find out about Tia for yourself."

* * *

Well, he's right about one thing, Brogen thought grudgingly, after an hour spent in Tia's company while hordes of interns and specialists pestered, poked and prodded her. She's not ordinary. Any "ordinary" child would be having a screaming tantrum by now. She was an extraordinarily attractive child as well as a patient one; her dark hair had been cropped short to keep it out of the way, but her thin, pixie-like face and big eyes made her look like the model for a Victorian fairy. A fairy trapped in a fist of metal . . . tormented and teased by a swarm of wasps.

"How much longer is this going to go on?" he asked Kennet Sorg in an irritated whisper.

Kennet raised one eyebrow. "That's for you to say," he replied. "You are here to evaluate her. If you want more time alone with her, you have only to say the word. This is her second session for the day, by the way," he added, and Brogen could have sworn there was a hint of—smugness?—in his voice. "She played host to another swarm this morning, between nine and noon."

Now Brogen was outraged, but on the child's behalf. Kennet Sorg must have read that in his expression, for he turned his chair towards the cluster of white-uniformed interns, cleared his throat, and got their instant attention.

"That will be all for today," he said quietly. "If you please, ladies and gentlemen, Professor Brogen would like to have some time with Tia alone."

There were looks of disappointment and some even of disgust cast Brogen's way, but he ignored them. The child, at least, looked relieved.

Before he could say anything to Kennet Sorg, he realized that the doctor had followed the others out the door, which was closing behind his chair, leaving Brogen alone with the child. He cleared his own throat awkwardly.

The little girl looked at him with a most peculiar expression in her eyes. Not fear, but wariness.

"You're not a Psych, are you?" she asked.

"Well—no," he said. "Not exactly. I'll probably ask some of the same questions, though."

She sighed, and closed her blue eyes for a moment. "I'm very tired of having my head shrunk," she replied forthrightly. "Very, very tired. And it isn't going to make any difference at all in the way I think, anyway. It isn't fair, but this—" she bobbed her chin at her chair "—isn't going to go away because it isn't fair. Right?"

"Sad, but true, my dear." He began to relax, and realized why. Kennet Sorg was right. This was no ordinary child; talking with her was not like talking to a child—but it was like talking to one of the kids in the shell program. "So—how about if we chat about something else entirely. Do you know any shellpersons?"

She gave him an odd look. "They must not have told you very much about me," she said. "Either that, or you didn't pay very much attention. One of my very best friends is a brainship—Moira Valentine-Maya. She gave me Theodore."

Theodore? Oh—right. The bear—He cast a quick glance over towards the bed—and there was the somber-looking little bear in a Courier Service shirt that he'd been told about.

"Did you ever think about what being in a shell must be like?" he asked, fishing for a way to explain the program to her without letting her know she was being evaluated.

"Of course I did!" she said, not bothering to hide her scorn. "I told Moira that I wanted to be just like her when I grew up, and she laughed at me and told me all about what the schools were like and everything—"

And then, before he could say anything, the unchildlike child proceeded to tell him about his own program. The brainship side, at any rate.

Pros and cons. From having to be able to multi-task, to the thrill of experiencing a singularity and warp-space firsthand. From being locked forever in a metal skin, to the loneliness of knowing that you were going to outlive all your partners but the last . . .

"I told her that I guessed I didn't want to go in when I figured out that you could never touch anybody again," she concluded, wearily. "I know you've got sensors to the skin and everything, but that was what I didn't like. Kind of funny, huh?"

"Why?" he asked without thinking.

"Because now—I can't touch anybody. And I won't ever again. So it's kind of funny. I can't touch anyone anymore, but I can't be a brainship either." The tired resignation in her voice galvanized him.

"I don't know why you couldn't," he said, aware that he had already made up his mind, and both aghast and amused at himself. "There's room in this year's class for another couple of new candidates; there's even room in the brainship category for one or two pupils."

She blinked at him, then blurted, "But they told me I was too old!"

He laughed. "My dear, you wouldn't be too old if you were your mother's age. You would have been a good shell-program candidate well past puberty." He still couldn't believe this child; responsible, articulate, flexible. . . . Lars and Kennet Sorg had been right. It made him wonder how many other children had been rejected out of hand, simply because of age—how many had been lost to a sterile existence in an institution, just because they had no one as persistent and as influential as Kennet Sorg to plead their cases.

Well, one thing at a time. Grab this one now. Put something in place to take care of the others later. "I'm going to have to go through the motions and file the paperwork—but Tia, if you want, you can consider yourself recruited this very instant."

"Yes!" she burst out. "Oh, yes! Yes, yes, yes! Oh, please, thank you, thank you so much—" Her cheeks were wet with tears, but the joy on her face was so intense that it was blinding. Professor Brogen blinked and swallowed a lump in his throat.

"The advantage of recruiting someone your age," he said, ignoring her tears and his tickling eyes, "is that you can make your career path decision right away. Shellpersons don't all go into brainships—for instance, you could opt for a career with the Institute; they've been asking to hire a shellperson to head their home-base research section for the last twenty years. You could do original research on the findings of others—even your parents' discoveries. You could become a Spaceport Administrator, or a Station Administrator. You could go into law, or virtually any branch of science. Even medicine. With the synaptic links we have, there is no career you cannot consider."

"But I want to be a brainship," she said firmly.

Brogen took a deep breath. While he agreed with her emotionally—well, there were some serious drawbacks. "Tia, a lot of what a brainship does is—well, being a truck driver or a cabby. Ferrying people or things from one place to another. It isn't very glamorous work. It is quite dangerous, both physically and psychologically. You would be very valuable, and yet totally unarmed, unless you went into the military branch, which I don't think you're suited for, frankly. You would be a target for thieves and malcontents. And there is one other thing; the ship is very expensive. In my not-so-humble opinion, brainship service is just one short step from indentured slavery. You are literally paying for the use and upkeep of that ship by mortgaging yourself. There is very little chance of buying your contract out in any reasonable length of time unless you do something truly spectacular or take on very dangerous duties. The former isn't likely to happen in ordinary service—and you won't be able to exchange boring service for whatever your fancy is."

Tia looked stubborn for a moment, then thoughtful. "All of that is true," she said, finally. "But—Professor, Dad always said I had his astrogator genes, and I was already getting into tensor physics, so I have the head for starflight. And it's what I want."

Brogen turned up his hands. "I can't argue with that. There's no arguing with preferences, is there?" In a way, he was rather pleased. As self-possessed as Tia was, she would do very well in brainship service. And as stable as she seemed to be, there was very little chance of her having psychological problems, unless something completely unforeseen came up.

She smiled shyly. "Besides, I talked this over with Moira—you know, giving her ideas on how she could get some extra credits to help with all her fines for bouncing her brawns? Since she was with Archeology and Exploration as a courier, there were lots of chances for her to see things that the surveyors might not, and I kind of told her what to look for. I kind of figured that with my background, it wouldn't be too hard to get assigned to A and E myself, and I could do the same things, only better. I could get a lot of credits that way. And once I owned my ship—well, I could do whatever I wanted."

Brogen couldn't help himself; he started to laugh. "You are quite the young schemer, did you know that?"

She grinned, looking truly happy for the first time since he had seen her. Now that he had seen the real thing, he recognized all her earlier "smiles" for the shams that they had been.

Leaving her here would have been a crime. A sin.  

"Well, you can consider yourself recruited," he said comfortably. "I'll fill out the paperwork tonight, databurst it to the schools as soon as I finish, and there should be a confirmation waiting for us when we wake up. Think you can be ready to ship out in the morning?"

"Yes, sir," she said happily.

He rose and started to leave—then paused for a moment.

"You know," he said, "you were right. I really didn't pay too much attention to the file they gave me on you, since I was so certain that—well, never mind. But I am terribly curious about your name. Why on earth did your parents call you 'Hypatia'?"

Tia laughed out loud, a peal of infectious joy.

"I think, Professor Brogen," she said, "that you'd better sit back down!"


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