"Burke says he’s not getting anywhere with Cocoa." Ms. Stick reported. "I think we may need to reconsider the time frame. We really do need well trained engineers."
"It’s not that difficult, this ship was designed to be run by the AI with minimal oversight. Fusion engines this size are the common thrusters for bulk ore carriers." Beringar snapped. God, he was so sick of coming face to face with the hairy creatures every time he turned around. It wouldn’t be so bad if they weren’t so pushy. "That Ivan The Terror," he sneered, "acts like he owns the ship, when in fact he’s the only one that has contributed nothing." He glared at the Teflon expression of his secretary, "The government built the main frame, I built the scoop and it’s my comet core that will refuel the ship." He got up and paced. "He’s nothing but a parasite—a thief and nothing more."
"I recommend you calm down," she said. "I really thought you were going to loose it at the last meeting. Which would not help a bit."
"I’m tired," he threw himself back into his chair. "I put my life savings into this project, worked for ten years to get this far, and what have I got? A space ship full of genetic horrors."
"Chill," she advised him. "We’ve got nearly twenty years to handle the problem."
"They reproduce faster than we do, and there are fifteen times as many of them as us." He scowled, thinking of the ungrateful desertion of the church group. "Didn’t I tell you those religious idiots were bad news?"
"I believe you said that they were not suitable breeding stock. Speaking of which, how are you going to handle the marines?"
"Some of them are pure human stock, and if they surrender they will be spared."
She glared at him, "Yes, but what are you going to do?"
"First," he steepled his fingers and settled down to explain his plan, "We have to . . . "
A cheerful ringing preceded the opening of the door by a few seconds.
"Ah, there you are Prissy." Beringar concealed his feelings behind a smile. "How is work progressing?"
"Oh, I suppose well," Prissy pasted a forced looking smile onto her face. "It’s just so horrible, what has been done to those poor ichimps."
"It’s not their fault, honey," he hugged her, knowing what a pushover for affection she was. "The Foundation will surely burn in Hell for what they’ve done to the human race."
Ms. Stick rolled her eyes, "I’ll see you tomorrow, boss." He nodded to her, then concentrated on Prissy.
"I know," her smile looked a bit more spontaneous now, "it’s hard to imagine people who would deliberately limit intelligence. But most of it is the way they were raised, and the problems that are genetic, I can fix. The doctors are getting a flood of questions, I think Ivan’s going to make his goal of one third of the ladychimps expecting before the end of the year."
"One third!" Beringar exploded, "A third of them having babies next year? I can’t believe it, there are too many of them already, how can they reproduce irresponsibly like this?"
Prissy shrank back, "They have plenty of room, and schools and everything. We’ve got it all worked out, Richie. We’ll stick to research before we get to the Iceberg, because zero G can mess up early embryonic development, then start the repairs and fertilizations in about six months, after we know there won’t be further maneuvers and stuff." She looked bewildered, "It’ll be just fine."
"Prissy," he gritted his teeth, "have you heard a thing I’ve said these last three months? The ichimps are deliberately designed to be very poor quality semi-humans. They are, on purpose, the dregs of humanity’s potential. I have no problem with you studying them, but it is wrong, it is criminal, to continue to create handicapped children. Can’t you see that?"
"It’s those artificial joins in the chromosomes," her eyes were brimming with tears, "and I can fix them."
"What, all the birth defects? What about all the still births? Good grief Prissy, why don’t you just deliberately create Down’s Syndrome babies? That wouldn’t be any worse." Now she was crying. Women! "Stop trying to help them have babies. They should all just have satisfying lives without children and die of old age."
"They are people, you know." Now her nose was running too. What had he ever seen in this technically talented but completely amoral girl? "I can fix most of the problems. They want babies, there’s nothing wrong with that."
"Prissy," he tried to keep his voice reasonable, "Think. People with genetic diseases have often refrained from having children, so as to not pass on their disease. That has always been the responsible way to go. To risk the life and health of a child by deliberately reproducing in the face of such a high risk is the height of irresponsibility."
"I’m fixing the problems." She sniveled, "They can have healthy babies, just like people with genetic diseases can have the genes replaced. It’s a little risky, but not as bad as you say." She glared unattractively through her tears.
"Oh, go think about it, for heavens sake," he snapped. She twitched away and grabbing a handful of tissues stomped off to the bedroom. He’d grabbed a substantial suite on expectations of continued intimacy, but this just wasn’t going to work. He couldn’t just kick her out, though. She’d go straight to the abominations and work for them full time.
He got up abruptly and walked out. They had quite an assortment of hardware at the co-op, they’d probably have just what he needed.
"Sir?" May Huang wondered if she was going to regret sticking to the formalities. Probably she should have just gone ahead and done it, but if she was going to try to be good . . .
"Come in, sit." Colonel Woods was as hard to read as ever. Not fair to genetically engineer a poker face.
"Ivan contacted me about a problem they are having with the piggies." Nope, not a twitch.
"Only one problem?" his voice didn’t carry expression well either, unless he was really trying to put it there.
She shrugged, "This is above and beyond the usual background harassment. Prissy Vanderville hasn’t come to work in two days and no one has been allowed to contact her. Without her, their attempt to fix their genetic problems is almost impossible."
"You know how to use the nanomanipulator, don’t you?" he was watching her closely. Like a hawk was probably quite accurate.
"Yes, and so do Cherry and Livingston. But we’re not experts at that, nor do any of us understand genetics at her level." Still no reaction. "I would like to go over there and see in person what is going on." Stone face. "In disguise."
At least that made him lean forward. "Disguise. To do exactly what?"
"That will depend on what I find," she admitted. "If she’s sick in bed and Beringar’s being a pain about calls from ichimps, I won’t do anything. On the other hand, if he’s got her locked up as a way of derailing the ichimps, I’ll probably try to release her. At worse, if she’s dead, I’ll try to find out what happened."
He frowned at her for a long moment, then nodded. "You are just a civilian employee, what you do on your time off is your own business. And see if SpiderJohnny has any discrete listening devices you could leave behind, while you are over there."
Her lips curved into a grin, "Certainly, sir. Good day, then." Oh, this guy wasn’t so bad after all. She trotted up the stairs to the elevator, Spider first in case he needed some lead time on the bugs. And he probably had, or could make a few other items she might need. Oh, she’d missed action. Even an easy infiltration like this would be such a relief from the boredom of good behavior. And she knew just who’s identity she was going to borrow.
A busy eight hours later, someone who looked enough like Eva Coltrane to fool the security comps, but not so much that friends of Coltrane’s would accost her, entered el three without so much as a curious glance. One hundred and forty three people was low density for an el, and she noticed immediately that they appeared to have been rearranging the partitions at random. Do it yourself, perhaps? Architecture by Darwinian principles? She trotted confidently down the stairs. The chip stuck to the shoulder of her special skin suit (rather than injected under the skin) declared her to be a citizen in good standing, the scanners crosschecked that the code was coming from a blonde female with the correct nose contour, in the right height range. Fortunately Coltrane was tall enough that the height range the system had programmed into it, to account for varying shoe styles, passed her. Following the sounds, she found the commons, and collecting a cup of coffee from a machine, she sat down to observe.
She had a good view of the opposite side from here. Studying the modifications and random deposits of humanity, she concluded that while the upper levels were being used for light manufacturing and offices, the mid levels were public spaces and the residences were mostly on the lower levels. Idling over to the rail and looking down, she saw a nicely manicured park, and, bonus time, Beringar striding along one stonelike walk. He disappeared from sight just about where she would expect if he were headed for the far stairway. She visually backtracked from where she’d first seen him, then wandered back to sit, and watch for his reemergence. She spotted him three levels higher, entering an office. She squinted, but at this angle even her eyes couldn’t make out a title.
She dropped her cup in the proper slot, slung her oversized purse over her shoulder, scraped one of Spider’s microbugs off on a table as she walked by and sauntered out and down the stairs. A few people sat around the park with its lush green grass, gushing fountains and tiny saplings, but it was mostly empty. She circled it casually and saw that the under hang of the next level was open and landscaped and well lit. An empty playground awaited the first generation of space born children. Apparently these colonists had all postponed reproduction until after departure. She wondered if they had gone as baby mad as the ichimps and her sister had, now that they were underway.
Beringar had come from an area with tennis courts, but he hadn’t been dressed for sports. Perhaps he just liked to walk in the park. She left a few bugs around and wandered on, and up the stairs he’d taken. The first level up had had some planning going into removing large sections of cramped rooms to allow for landscaping, barely sprouted though it was, around widely spaced numbered doors. Some of them also had names either on the wall or on door mats. One at the back had no names, but ostentatiously ornamental numbers and enough older plants in the flowerbeds to actually look good. She measured by eye the space from the door to the end of the corridor. What a very large apartment you have Grandmother! In best Little Red Riding Hood tradition, she decided to walk straight into the wolf’s mouth. Slipping a hand into her purse she pushed a combination of buttons. The door lock clicked open and admitted her to an empty living room. A quick circuit of the apartment assured her that no one was home except behind a door with a chain bonded to it to limit its range of motion. She double-checked that there were no live alarms on the door, then opened it the few inches the chain would allow. Prissy was curled up in a chair, and raised her head to glare.
"What now, you creep?"
"Hi Prissy, how’ve you been?" May pulled a box out of her purse and knelt on the floor to open it. "Let’s just see what a laser will do to . . . yep, fly free, little bird!" she shoved the door open the rest of the way.
Prissy edged out warily, "Do I know you?"
"Well, yes, but I didn’t look like this at the time." May looked her over critically, "I don’t know if Beringar has put a security alert out on your ID, so lets switch it."
"May Huang?" she guessed, her tone rising in hope.
"Yep. Doctor Livingston got worried when you didn’t come to work and he couldn’t call you. So he talked to Ivan, and Ivan talked to me." She put the EMP generator against Prissy’s shoulder and triggered it. "There we go, now we just tape this one on, and with a wave of my magic wand," she scooped Prissy’s hair up into a ponytail then twisted and pinned it into a bun, "we turn you into Ms. Stick." She pulled out a carefully wrapped lump.
"What!" Prissy dodged, "What’s that?"
"A fake nose. It will be enough to get you past the security comparisons. Hold still." She pressed the fake covering over Prissy’s nose and studied the results. "That will do nicely."
"Are you sure?" Prissy touched the nose gingerly, "How do you know?"
"I wrote the security software. Or rather, adapted it from a system I’d written thirty years ago and updated twice since. Come on." She led the way out, climbing up one flight before circling around to the far side where there was less chance of encountering Beringar or Stick. And up the rest of the stairs, and up the elevator and tram.
May sighed nostalgically, "That was fun, while it lasted."
"Fun!" Prissy was still a bit wild eyed.
"Fun. Let’s call Livingston and you can decide where you want to live and go shopping."
"My clothes!" She stopped dead. "Farengi!" She turned, "I have to get Farengi!"
May grabbed her elbow as she turned, "I think you’d better forget the, umm . . . " and all unbidden all the guilt she’d felt when she’d failed to retrieve Simon flooded back and froze her on the spot.
"I can’t leave him!" Prissy wailed.
Oh Hell! "Maybe you’d better let me get Farengi."
"Oh, no, he’s gotten a bit wild after that nasty Spider person, I have to get him."
May looked back at the tram gate, with its Piggie guard and sighed. "I should have known it was too easy. OK, lets get the critter."
The guard just glanced at his readout and opened the tram door for them. May, standing a bit in front of the shorter Prissy shrugged apologetically, "Forgot something." He nodded looking totally bored as the doors closed on them.
"Where is Farengi?"
"In the bio lab. I have him cleaning cages there."
"That rat thing cleans cages?" May blinked at the short girl.
"Oh yes he’s very handy, with biofeedback he’ll do an amazing range of things." Under her fake nose she glowed with enthusiasm, sobering suddenly as the tram stopped and the door slid open.
May lead the way through a handful of people waiting for the tram, recognizing some of the flight crew trainees. She glanced surreptitiously at her watch. Plenty of time before shift change let Coltrane off the bridge.
Out of the elevator she gestured Prissy to lead the way, and followed her down the hall, keeping her body language causal and relaxed as her nerves screamed about the stupidity of returning to the scene of the crime. But Prissy left the stairs at the second level down and threaded a maze to the clearly labeled ‘Small Animal Facility’. Prissy frowned at a door that refused to budge for her.
"How odd." May looked around, no one was in sight. "I would have thought Stick was cleared for everything." She pressed the magic keys on her EMP generator again, frying all unshielded electronics in a two meter radius. The door lock clicked open. May put a cautioning hand on Prissy’s shoulder and slid through the door, ready to duck. Nothing. She waved Prissy in and stood in the doorway watching.
Behind her she heard Prissy making kissy noises and turned her head enough to see the ferret-rat gallop across the floor to the girl. With a sudden decision, she opened her case again and swapped nose, wig andID tag. Just call me Sarah Gifford. She pulled another set out for Prissy, stuffing her hair under a wig and swapping the nose and ID to the accompaniment of human/animal endearments. "OK, lets go." She led the way back they had come, and hearing approaching footsteps, hissed, "Put the critter in a pocket or something."
A team of four security guards rounded the corner, pointed their Security comps at them and nodded and passed them by without comment.
"What was that?" Prissy whispered.
"Trouble. You go on ahead, and I’ll jump anyone that gets too interested in you."
Prissy scurried ahead of her, and directly into Richard Beringar hustling up the stairs. For a miracle, the girl just sidestepped politely and started up the stairs. Beringar took two more steps before his subconscious got through to him. As he turned to look at Prissy, May strolled up and tapped his shoulder.
"Richie, darling, how have you been?"
"What?" He snapped, "Who are you? I’m busy."
"Oh. Sorry." She widened her eyes mournfully, sighed deeply, and walked on, putting just a bit of extra wiggle in her walk.
She headed down the stairs, ears pricked, and after a hesitation heard his footsteps retreating. She turned around and climbed back up to the elevator lobby. Prissy was nowhere in sight. If you’re not on that elevator headed up I’ll kill you! Or maybe just that rodent.
She thumbed the button and lounged back beside the stairhead, hearing multiple footsteps ascending. The security team came panting up, Beringar hot on their heels.
Pointing his comp at her, the Corporal, if she was interpreting the uniform correctly, said, "Who are you and what is your business here?"
"Sarah Gifford, why?"
"What are you doing here." Beringar barked.
She rolled her eyes, "Waiting for the elevator, Duuh!" she could feel the air cooling and hear her heartbeat as everything started slowing down just that tiny bit.
Beringar and the Corporal glared at her, but one of the team was immune to delaying tactics and checked the elevator. "There’s a car going up." He reported, "Should I stop it?" he was popping the control panel off as he spoke.
"Yes," Beringar and the Corporal spoke as one, turning their heads to look. She shoved Beringar into the private at the controls, turned and punched the Corporal in the diaphragm, stepped past him and kicked another, turned and hooked an ankle to dump a third, spun back and kicked Beringar before he could turn around. The competent private was just straightening up and pulling his gun and received a toe in his guts for his reward. At speed, the laser behind her made an audible hiss, and only the fact that it was set on single shot rather than continuous burn saved her as she threw herself at the prone guard. She felt the crack when her toe hit his jaw all the way up into her ribcage. In the sudden silence, she put a hand to her chest and took a cautious breath. It didn’t exactly hurt, but it was a lot shallower breath than she had intended. With one eye on the stair head she walked back to the elevator. One car was at the top, the other headed down. She started to feel behind her and her muscles . . . didn’t quite hurt, exactly, but they felt like if she tried to reach any further, they would. She put her hand down and watched the numbers scroll down as the elevator returned. She knelt carefully, keeping her back straight, and replaced the elevator control cover. She walked to the far side of the elevator door just as it slid open. The four passengers walked out, laughter stalling suddenly as they took in the bodies on the floor. She slipped in behind them and punched the button. They were still staring at her in shock as the doors closed and the car lifted. She stood carefully, definitely not leaning back, shifting her stance as the apparent direction of ‘down’ changed as the spin acceleration rapidly decreased and allowed the ships acceleration to dominate. She noted the position of the guard in the tram lobby and walked and turned so that he never saw her right side or back. The tram seemed to take forever to arrive, then she waited, back not-to-obviously to the wall as people got off. She sidled on, and stood in the corner. After an anxious wait the doors slid shut and the tram slid back upwards. The guards at the top might be a bit tricky, but she’d just have to deal with them. Somehow. There was a ringing in her ears and her breath seemed even shorter than before. Beringar and four bloody security guards. Good God, she couldn’t possibly be killed rescuing a damned rodent. She refused.